Less than a year ago, Therese Ramstedt had an abortion. She was 25, in a happy relationship, and she discovered she was pregnant and the contraception the couple were using failed.
At the time she didn’t tell anyone, apart from her then-boyfriend and the staff at the abortion clinic she visited. Fear of being judged and lack of openness around the subject meant she felt no option but to keep it to herself. She didn’t even tell her mother, whom she knew had had an abortion herself.
Now, she’s reliving the experience nightly as part of her one-woman ‘Mission Abort’, which she’s performing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
It wasn’t easy for Therese to talk about it to begin with. She blames not just the silence around the subject, but the fear of being judged from those closest to her.
“I’d never had conversations with anyone about it. I was worried someone would try to make me change my mind. You never know who you’re going to offend,” she tells HuffPost UK.
A few weeks after the termination she started to open up - “I couldn’t not tell people anymore” - and called her mum.
“My mum completely understood at that moment and during that conversation I started to think that I’d been an idiot for not telling her sooner.”
Therese’s decision to keep the abortion a secret from others is by no means unusual. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion in their lifetime, but it remains one of the biggest taboo subjects around women’s bodies.
Vix Proctor, Head of Communications at Marie Stopes UK, told HuffPost UK: “Often women will come into our centres feeling that they are going to be judged or even ‘told off’ for getting pregnant and deciding to have an abortion. And many hesitate to talk openly about their experience afterwards, even with their loved ones, for fear of what they might say.
“Choosing whether or not to talk to others about an abortion is every woman’s choice, but it’s also important that women know that they are not alone and that emotional support is available if they need it.”
As an actor and playwright, Therese worked through her experience by turning it into a performance.
It begins with Therese laying on a bed, her feet in imaginary stirrups, while she is being examined by a medical professional. It follows her through her journey from discovering she was pregnant through to the abortion itself and the aftermath, which she “wasn’t prepared for”.
“I remember feeling very confused by my conflicting feelings of sadness, relief, guilt and freedom – while I had no regrets, it was a tumultuous time where I’d suddenly get upset for what seemed like no reason, and I would think about the ‘what ifs’ even when I knew how completely unproductive that is. ”
While the play is based on her personal experience, she also wanted the performance to represent other women’s experiences.
“The whole point, I think, is that ‘my’ story could actually be the story of any woman who falls accidentally pregnant and makes the choice to terminate.”
By sharing her own very raw experience, she hopes to give a voice to women everywhere.
“It was a deliberate and important choice to make this piece personal rather than political – we already hear a lot about abortion legislation – as I believe we as humans relate to and empathise with other humans.”
When abortion is portrayed in mainstream arts and entertainment, Therese says it is always “peripheral” and over-simplifies the experience.
“These representations divide women into two types: those who are victims and feel guilt or the super rational power woman who makes a choice and doesn’t think twice,” she said.
“Both are real experiences but neither was my experience and I wanted to make the work reflect my own experience. It was important to not portray the woman as a victim, but someone who makes an informed decision and has feelings about it.”
Her journey was by no means plain sailing. The strain of the decision took its toll on her own wellbeing and relationship, which broke down shortly after the abortion.
“My partner at the time and I were both far too unprepared for that type of commitment – to parenthood or to each other – and it was not financially viable for me as a freelancer in the arts to have a baby in London. So the decision itself was in most ways quite a straightforward one, and I definitely knew almost immediately that it was right for me.”
She describes her overall experience of abortion as “incredibly sad”, but also observes the positives.
“I know myself now on a level that I definitely didn’t before - my strengths as well as my limitations. Some wonderful friends have stepped up and supported me in the loveliest ways. And I know that I can get pregnant, which is of course not something that happens for everyone.”
Writing the play was cathartic for Therese in many ways, although she quickly detached her own experience from the writing process.
“I try to consciously dive into everything and understand myself. Lots of people want to move on and forget an abortion. I believe the life-changing moment comes when you find out you’re pregnant, not when you choose the terminate the pregnancy.”
If the audience takes one lesson away from ‘Mission Abort’ it’s to break down the taboo around unwanted pregnancy.
“We need to speak about women’s personal experience of abortion in order to ‘humanise’ the subject and make more people realise that behind the decision to terminate a pregnancy there are actual human beings.”