The day I decided to have an abortion I was five weeks pregnant, pushing my ten-month-old son in his buggy to the park. It was a sunny December day in 2014, a few weeks before Christmas. Myself, my partner and our son had only just arrived in London from Edinburgh.
Despite the sunshine, I was in a very dark place. I was going through a bout of mental illness (something I would only go on to recover from when that baby was starting school four years later). It was a condition that had been building over a lifetime but which came to the fore because of the physical and mental toll of pregnancy and childbirth. I had just come off statutory maternity pay and we were just uncovering the real kick in the teeth of monthly childcare fees.
My partner and I had talked endlessly as November turned to December, in between unpacking boxes and finding a childminder about how on earth we’d ever afford two. I know for some women an abortion can be a cut and dry thing, and it has every right to be – but I agonised. I would make an appointment only to cancel. When I would call to rebook, the clinic receptionist would say: ‘This happens more often than you think.’
Life was already so very, very hard. We were broke, exhausted, in a new city without a support network – and I was a mess, unable to feel anything but horror and rage and disconnection.
It wasn’t until that sunny winter Saturday that I thought: I can’t do this to my son. I can’t do this to all of us. Having a baby would be sacrificing my body and mind for a family that doesn’t exist yet. Having an abortion would be caring for the family I already have.
And there was another reason in the back of my mind – growing up in the United States, I had seen first-hand what forced birth can do to a person.
My mother was a young woman during the Baby Scoop era. This was a time from the end of the Second World War to the passing of Roe v Wade, when millions of women in the United States were coerced into relinquishing their babies to the state. In the early 1960s, my mother was one of them.
She was a bright student, on a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Boston, Massachusetts, with designs on going to med school. At 14 she found herself pregnant by an older boyfriend, and her parents felt there was only one option: the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers.
The ‘Flo Crit’, as my mother and her roommates called it, was one of many such homes across the country for unmarried girls and women, ranging in age from early teens to late-twenties, all of whom found themselves with child and without another option. The social workers at the home would interrogate these girls, asking them ‘what can you possibly give a baby?’ They would tell the girls not to hold their new-borns after the birth, although when my mother finally did give birth, she insisted. She snuck into the nursery one night before she left the Flo Crit, and took a surreptitious photo of her sleeping daughter. It was the only piece of her she had for the next fifteen years.
Upon returning to her life in Boston, the stigma was so great that she was expelled from private school, and ended up pregnant again at 16. But this time she married and kept the child.
In the years which followed, she tried to take back control. In the mid-1970s, after Roe v Wade was passed, she answered a classified ad in the Boston Globe from a woman looking for other survivors of Flo Crit and similar homes. That became the first meeting of Concerned United Birthparents – and it took place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Brewster, Massachusetts.
She became involved with the CUB and took direct action – literally sneaking into adoption offices and extracting information from the files. These efforts paid off when she found my eldest sister in the late 1970s but it wasn’t the happy ending that you might expect.
By this point she had two more children, then I came along in the early 1980s. She raised us in a highly dysfunctional climate of fear. I truly believe that what happened to her in those years, in that home, to her body and mind, had such a profound and lasting impact on her that she never truly recovered. And the impact could be felt through the generations.
The truth is, my mother was hard to love – it took decades and a lot of therapy to be able to say this. Even a good reunion with my oldest sister could not heal her and by the time my mother died in 2012, they were not really speaking.
She would pull you close to push you away again. The psychic shock of having her firstborn taken away was not a pain I imagine she wanted to repeat. My childhood was incredibly sheltered and controlled, and my mother’s temper was at the edge of every room I lived in (difficulties in parenting subsequent children are a known fallout of the Baby Scoop system - and detailed in Ann Fessler’s fantastic The Girls Who Went Away).
The psychic shock of having her firstborn taken away was not a pain I imagine she wanted to repeat
I’m glad my mother isn’t alive to see this particular horror unfolding, this rollback of the rights her generation fought for.
Back in 2014, I knew I didn’t have to be my mother – that I had options. Being in the UK, I assumed the process of getting the treatment I needed would be easier than it might have been in the States – of course, nothing is ever straightforward when it comes to women’s health, not even here.
It took five transvaginal scans, multiple humiliating and confusing trips to a clinic and one withering encounter with an anti-abortion protester before I could get the abortion that, by this point, I felt I needed just to survive.
When I was pregnant with my first child, from six weeks onwards I was so tired that I felt like I was dying. My body swelled to the point I have stretch marks on the sides of my knees. And it never got better, until the baby was out, when he was born. The second pregnancy hit me even earlier. I felt so unwell, and desperate that I began considering how much force it would take to reach a resolution by throwing myself down a set of stairs.
Despite my obvious desperation, at one appointment a brusque young woman turned to me and said: "it’s a perfectly healthy embryo, you know."
She didn’t need to shame me –there is still an unreal amount of stigma around this procedure.
There’s many reasons why the overturning of Roe v Wade is a horror show. Pregnancy can be a horror show. But forced birth, like the one my mother went through - like ones that millions of women in the US may well have to endure in coming years - is a horror show that has consequences well beyond that woman and that baby. Consequences that will ripple out through the many generations who come after.
Getting an abortion in 2014 in London was hardly a cakewalk. But the consequences of not having that abortion would have been far more catastrophic.