THE BLOG

Abortion and Women's Other Secrets: What Do We Do With Our Shame?

27/02/2014 17:58 GMT | Updated 29/04/2014 10:59 BST

In my experience, it's a myth that women share the darker corners of their lives more than men.

A while back, I was having supper with a few close women friends. Conversation reverted yet again to the fact that one of us, Bryony, had got married without telling us. The ceremony didn't mean anything much to either of them, she reminded us as we ribbed her harmlessly. She'd been with Richard for years; they'd done it purely for tax reasons. She recapped that they'd long ago decided not to have children, in fact made as sure as they could that they didn't: too many children in the world as it was.

Whereupon our friend Josie exclaimed, turning to Petra (these are all fictional names), "Remind me, why did you have your abortions?"

Silence froze the room. It was clear that, other than Josie, none of us had known of one of Petra's terminations, let alone that there had been several. And some around that table looked uncomfortable as if they knew Petra's experience from firsthand.

None of us discussed exactly what happened that supper time. The conversation veered abruptly, and no more was ever said, not in clear, straightforward words. I've thought about it a lot, and come to the conclusion that, had it been me with a termination-through-choice in my past, I wouldn't have confessed it to my nearest and dearest either. (I find I even need to stress here that I'm not saying that I've had one, take clear note.)

In the US, nearly half of all pregnancies are unintentional, and four in 10 end in abortion; some one-third of American women will have had an abortion by the age of 45. Recently, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was reported as observing that "at least one third of British women will have had an abortion by the time they reach the age of 45". That's a shedload of women, potentially, not confiding in their friends.

There are statistics, news stories and articles everywhere about women made ashamed and guilty by other secrets, too: singledom, childlessness, genital mutilation, forced marriage, physical or sexual or emotional abuse, menstrual conditions, the size and shape of their labia...The list goes on.

The good news is that these days through the internet, most such groups are catered for by online communities, message boards and the like - though they're sometimes hard to find (single and childless, I've sought out the first two 'clubs' myself). Anonymously if desired, we can confess to and seek succour from a stranger who's in a similar situation, something we may not dare with our best friend. And certainly, this can help us feel less alone.

A paper, although focusing on patients with purely medical problems, tries to outline the issues created by virtual chatrooms, an area not yet well researched (Online support groups: An overlooked resource for patients). On the plus side, they allow a traffic in information, can be as problem-specific as you like, and flex to individuals' needs. Their anonymity, the fact that there are no potentially offputting 'social cues', and their perceived intimacy allow people to air the hardest problems, surmounting their embarrassment and shame. On the negative side, 'disinhibition', i.e. provocative, insulting or over-familiar dialogue, can result; the quality of information can be questionable, too; and, most interestingly to me, online chatters can exchange none of the verbal and non-verbal cues that tend to develop genuine empathy. Women online with their problems may feel themselves less lonely, and yet, back in their 'real lives', they may be as isolated as ever.

Dr Brené Brown, Research Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, reminds us of the difference between guilt (at our behaviour) and shame (of ourselves), potentially much more damaging. She urges us to recognise and talk about shame a whole lot more, sloganising convincingly that "empathy's the antidote to shame". Her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't) has a subtitle that argues for Making the journey [away] from "What will people think?".

For her, empathy is about airing our vulnerabilities in front of others: about being daring if not courageous enough to forge real-time human and physical connections - as she explains. Which probably means trusting more in our trusted friends. Not staying anonymous and 'safe', but talking to the ones we're with.