One in three women in the UK have had an abortion in their lifetime, but despite such large numbers, there is still a huge amount of misinformation surrounding the procedure.
Worse still is the stigma and stereotyping those who have had an abortion have to face - not just in society, their communities and within family units, but physically outside the abortion clinics, with Pro Life campaigners routinely stationed to outside.
“People are quick to stereotype who has an abortion and why,” says Genevieve Edwards, UK communications director for Marie Stopes International.
“They think it’s just reckless young women who can’t be bothered to take the pill, the truth is very far from that. The only thing these women have in common is a crisis pregnancy.”
Figures released today (13 June 2017) by the Department Of Health for England and Wales, which show data for 2016, reveal that women get abortions at all stages of life.
The majority of women who ended a pregnancy in 2016 were already mothers (55%) and either in a relationship or married (70%). Over the last decade, abortion rates have decreased among all age groups under 30, while increasing among all those aged 30 and over.
”We see women at every stage in their reproductive lives,” Edwards added. “We’ve got three decades of fertility to manage, which is a long time to have your contraception working perfectly.”
All abortions are different. The women are different, the situations are different, and - depending on the duration of pregnancy and preference of those involved - the procedures are different.
To illustrate this, we spoke to seven women about their abortion experiences - the good and the bad.
Iris had her abortion in 2014, when she had just started dating her current, long-term partner. The couple had used a condom, as she wasn’t on the pill. She had a medical abortion at seven weeks pregnant.
“I believe we chose for the right option for us because we hadn’t been together for that long and we weren’t in a financial position to raise a family. It’s been tough to accept it but I have finally come to terms with it.
“It was draining and very emotional. In your heart you know you’re doing the right thing, but of course you’d rather be happy.
“My boyfriend came with me to the clinic, and I told my immediate family and two friends. By telling my mum I found out she had an abortion too when she was younger.
“Despite this I still felt a great deal of stigma around my abortion. It’s not ‘traditional’ but I think it prevents a lot of hurt in the future so it shouldn’t be a stigma or taboo.
“There is never a perfect timing to have a child but you can feel deep down if you’re ready or not, as I did.”
Katie had an abortion in February 2015, following a one night stand with an ex boyfriend during the Christmas holidays. She had a surgical abortion, vacuum aspiration, at nine weeks pregnant.
“I made my decision to have the abortion the moment I took the test on the 14 January 2015.
“I was nine weeks pregnant when I had the termination, but I first went to my doctor at five weeks pregnant - it took 23 days to have the termination, which was far too long.
“I was in pieces by the end. I hated myself and felt like I had no one to talk to. I didn’t speak to family or close friends as I thought they would judge me and criticise me.
“On the day of the abortion, I was in the waiting room on my own surrounded by other girls with friends and family members. I went from room to room being seen by a number of nurses and doctors to check on my physical and mental health.
“When I finally entered the room to have the termination the doctor asked me why I was alone and I told her that I was too ashamed to speak to my family so I wanted to do it alone. A nurse was brought into the room to hold my hand through the procedure.
“I wish I had told my close friends sooner, as I know they would have been there for me, like I know I would have been there for them.”
Suzanne had her abortion ten years ago. She had just started a long distance relationship and both her and her then-boyfriend were in their early twenties. She had a surgical abortion, vacuum aspiration, at six weeks pregnant.
“The pregnancy was totally unplanned but, to me, not overly surprisingly, as I’d always been terrible at remembering to take my pill.
“Afterwards I was in pain; it felt like period pain but worse, and I was sick quite a lot. I also felt sore from the procedure and, to be honest, hungry, as I was told not to eat in the 24 hours before the procedure.
“I think my overriding emotion was relief that the whole thing was finally over, and I also felt a little bit proud of myself, not for ‘having an abortion’ but for knowing what I wanted and making it happen. When I got home, it was then that the whole thing kind of hit me, what I’d done. I didn’t feel guilty, but the weeks beforehand had been so stressful. I was upset and in pain but knew I’d done the right thing, for me.
“It was definitely something that, at the time, was talked about in hushed voices rather than with confidence. Two of my housemates at the time, actually, were against me having the abortion and told me this. They later apologised and said they supported me whatever decision I made and I didn’t hold their views against them at all.
“What kind of astounded me, and made me feel scared about the entire thing, from finding out I was pregnant to actually having the abortion, was the amount of hoops a woman has to jump through to get an abortion.
“We have to trust women to know what’s right for them.”
Hanisa has had two abortions: her first was aged 21, she was newly single and having casual sex, so she does not know who the father was; her second abortion this year, aged 26, and she is in a five-year relationship. Each experience was completely different, she says. Her first was a surgical abortion, vacuum aspiration, at 11 weeks pregnant and her second was a medical abortion at 10 weeks pregnant.
Thoughts on her first abortion:
“I had been single for several months and at 21, was living the party girl lifestyle. Out clubbing about 3/4 times a week, not wanting any meaningful relationship with guys. I just wanted to use them for fun and I enjoyed causal dating. However I was naive and lazy with birth control, thinking if I skipped a few days here or there, nothing would happen.
“My priority was to get a termination as quickly as possible and only thought was that my parents would be so angry with me. I was just starting my career path and this outcome would ruin everything I’ve worked towards.
“My overall emotion was relief and that I could get back to how things were.
“Protection when you’re single is paramount and I learned the hard way.”
Thoughts on her second abortion:
“I told myself, after the first abortion that I would never want to go through it again, not because it was painful but just the whole process was tiresome. I thought I was always careful with my birth control, however I seemed to have slipped into laziness and I skipped three days in a row.
“I bought a test and within a few minutes, it was positive. I knew straightaway that I had to get an abortion but I certainly wasn’t happy about it. I was so angry at myself for once again getting into this situation.
“My first thought was that I still wasn’t ready for a baby and the financial burden it brings. It was a quick decision but I was just angry at myself.
“No one wants to terminate a pregnancy with the love of their life but I had to look at it logically.”
“I choose the pills (taken orally and inserted into the vagina). It was a pain that I’ve never experienced before and I ended up crying as it wouldn’t go away. The nurse told me that the pill induces a miscarriage therefore the foetus will come out when you go to the toilet.
“I was alone throughout this and was absolutely miserable, I curled up in bed with a hot water bottle and just waited.
“Then in the late evening, it happened, I went to the toilet and felt (and heard) a splash into the bowl.
“My heart physically felt heavy and I was heart-broken. It honestly was one of the saddest moments in my life.
“My head knew this was the right decision but my heart was incredibly sad.”
Natalie had an abortion in 2012. She and her then-partner of 6-and-a-half years were in a long-distance relationship, as both had just moved out of London for work (her to Cheltenham and him to Jersey). She had a surgical abortion, vacuum aspiration, having been warned off the pill by her doctor, at eight weeks pregnant.
“The decision was instant as I actually felt like I didn’t have another choice. At the time I couldn’t see anyway of making it work financially or emotionally and therefore the decision almost felt like it was made for me. I discussed my thought process with my partner and even though he understood and agreed he was a lot more emotional in coming to terms with my decision.
“Physically the procedure was fine, a tiny amount of pain but nothing worse than a smear test. Emotionally, I actually felt fine right up until I was laid on the bed and then I had my first nerves. I have to say that the doctor and nurses (all female) were incredible and played a huge part in making it feel like the right decision and an incredibly safe and comforting situation to be in. I have actually never felt so supported by other women than in this situation.
“The only person who I ever told was my partner. As a feminist I felt hugely conflicted by the fact that I wanted to keep the process a secret. I was convinced everyone would judge me. I still felt like there was a taboo about admitting you’ve had an abortion.
“Maybe part of my decision to not tell anyone else was I also didn’t want to entertain their opinion. I had made my decision, knew I had made the right decision and didn’t need to tell anyone else. But I am still conflicted to tell me friends, due to what they would think and as much as I have always wanted to tell my parents as we have a hugely open relationship I have never been able to.”
Jennie had her abortion in 2007, aged 39. She has been married for 18 years and has three sons aged from 12 to 17. She had a surgical abortion, vacuum aspiration, at 11 weeks pregnant.
“In April 2013 two months before my 40th and a week before my husband was due to have his vasectomy, because we’d decided we definitely didn’t want any more children, I missed a period and was shocked to discover I was pregnant again!
“We had been using contraception (condoms) and in all the years we’d been together it had never happened. I thought stupidly it was some kind of ‘sign’ and was at first positive about it, although at the back of my mind it was niggling away at me that I wasn’t happy.
“As time went on I felt myself sinking into depression, there were so many questions rushing through my mind. How could we afford another child? What was going to happen to the free time me and hubby? Did I really want to do the late nights and everything else all over again?
“One evening as I was laying in the bath and hubby came home from work, I told him I really didn’t want another baby. He said ‘We’ll cope’ and I replied ‘But I don’t want to just cope. I want to enjoy our life and enjoy the children we already have’. I thought that some things are forced upon us and we have no choice but to cope, but with this I had a choice.
“As soon as I made the decision I contacted Marie Stopes, I didn’t have to see my GP and it was done on the NHS without the long wait (I think I waited about four days). It wasn’t an easy decision to make and there were lots of tears, but I did it.
“Now, I have to remember I must have felt very sure and very unhappy at that time. Believe me I’d never consider myself to be brave or emotionally strong, but I know it was the right decision for us.
“People need to realise it’s all subjective, and until you’re unhappily pregnant in whatever situation, you have no right to say abortion is wrong.
She had her abortion in 2014, aged 22 and was about to graduate from university when she found out she was pregnant. She had been in a relationship with her boyfriend for two-and-a-half years, they’re still together now. She had a medical abortion at nine weeks pregnant.
“I’ve always been strongly pro-choice and had spoken hypothetically with my boyfriend in the past about what choice I would make if I ever got pregnant. I’d always said that there was no doubt I would have an abortion.
“When I actually discovered I was pregnant, I had one sudden guilty thought about women who couldn’t get pregnant. I felt selfish for being in a position to choose. But this was only my mind going crazy during the first hour after I took the test. It took me no time at all to decide on an abortion, there was no doubt that was what I would do.
“I was also lucky that both myself and my boyfriend were steadfast in our decision to have an abortion. It was a sad decision, but it wasn’t a hard one.
“Because the procedure was so physically painful, that for me detracted from the emotional side of it. I just wanted the pain to be over.
“I had the procedure where you take two pills over two days. The second day was when you essentially bleed very heavily to get rid of the foetus. I could almost feel it come out of me when I was sitting on the toilet bleeding, and that was the worst part emotionally. I felt guilty for a short while, but my main emotion was relief for it all to be over.
“The staff in the clinic were very supportive, but outside the clinic was a different story - there were anti-abortion protesters outside giving out leaflets of what foetuses looked like.
“But rather than feel stigma, I actually felt empowered and they made me more confident in my decision. There was no way they were going to dictate what was my decision and right for me, through attempting to guilt trip me on information that I personally do not connect with or believe in. They made my will to have an abortion stronger, and made me feel even more than I had before that my decision was the right on.”
*Name has been changed, at interviewee’s request, to protect identity
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