When Paula Smith* discovered that she was pregnant, she exercised her choice to have an abortion, knowing that it was the right decision for her. Here she recounts her experience of the abortion process, and outlines why she believes pro-life activism is unhelpful to women facing pregnancy

Written by Guest Author
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Images by William Murphy

Content warning: This article contains themes of abortion, including a description of the process which may be distressing to some readers

In December I had an abortion. You don’t know how incredibly hard that is to say. I still have to whisper it to those that know, and the word pregnancy is not something I like to say either. I couldn’t tell people why I looked like crap all the time, why I couldn’t bear to be in lectures because sitting up for too long made my head spin. I couldn’t do any sport, I couldn’t study, I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t live like that. Even now this piece is written under a pseudonym because I know of people in my life that have expressed pro-life opinions. I don’t feel threatened by these people. I just don’t want them to approach me asking why I did it, or whether I feel bad for killing a baby. I don’t need that. So that’s why I’m here as a real life example to tell you what happened for me to be pregnant, why I chose to have an abortion and why I don’t need a society to tell me what to do with my body.

Firstly, I am super fertile, apparently. I’m that case where the pills or contraception should have worked, and didn’t. I did what I could to not be pregnant and yet still when I took two pregnancy tests at home on my own, those red bars stared back at me with a look of disappointment. I laughed, called the person who was jointly responsible and without hesitation knew I was going to have an abortion. There was not a beat between knowing I was pregnant and knowing I had to get a termination as soon as possible. That might be pretty upsetting for some to hear but let me break down what my pregnancy was like.

restricted abortion
Proportion of safe to unsafe abortions worldwide (Guttmacher Institute, 2017)

I didn’t feel like a human being. In fact for me, I felt like a creature pretending I could laugh and eat and move normally. My boobs ballooned and became painful when I walked. I felt nauseous continuously no matter the medication or time of day. There was no end to me feeling like I was dying, although I never once threw up. I had headaches, I couldn’t sleep properly. I couldn’t work which meant I almost dropped out of a degree despite all the effort I had put in until that point. I couldn’t function as a human being, all because of something I had no power to stop despite me trying my absolute best. I have never heard of another undergraduate at Birmingham talking about their pregnancy experience. So let me fill you all in.

I couldn’t function as a human being, all because of something I had no power to stop

One of the things I didn’t expect was how long the process takes. I found out I was pregnant at the beginning of November. It was sudden and I hadn’t told anyone but the guy I had slept with so the next thing was to call a doctor. Despite me telling them what was going on, pregnancy is not considered any sort of emergency. So, although I had called for appointments, I was turned away because they were too full on that day. I called around to clinics listed on the NHS site, who also say they aren’t abortion related and so point me to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

BPAS is a blessing to all women affected by pregnancy. I called them and they answered with understanding and options of what I wanted to do. They do not offer an abortion unless you ask for one yourself and then they provide a date at one of their clinics to discuss it further. This, however, is two or three extra weeks, or even more if you aren’t available at that date. Three extra weeks of feeling like your insides are being churned every time someone moves around on a sofa beside you. Two more weeks of knowing you can’t eat or sleep properly. But that’s fine because you know it’s better than suffering for several more months.

Those weeks passed. I sat in a clinic full of women of different ages, shapes and sizes. A woman who already looked like a mother, a girl who looked about 18, a woman in her 20s huffing and puffing about being there and everything taking too long. We all knew we had one thing in common but it wasn’t much of a conversation starter. I was in that waiting room over two hours before being seen.

We all knew we had one thing in common but it wasn’t much of a conversation starter

The nurse asked me my name and hurried me to a dimly lit room where I had an ultrasound. Knowing I was inclined to have an abortion she asked if I wanted to know how far along I was and if there were multiple pregnancies there. I said yes, because my grim curiosity got the better of me. I was 8 weeks and 1 day along. She didn’t mention more than one pregnancy. I was hurried off to the bathroom with an STI kit once she had cleaned the gel off of my stomach. Then I sat in a room with her to discuss what happens next.

She asked what I want and I reply saying an abortion. She asked if anyone has forced me into it. I truthfully respond with no. She asked if I experienced any violence at home from a partner. Again, no. She took my blood pressure as well as a blood sample to see if I am HIV positive which, thankfully, I was not. And then my options were given to me.

I could either have an abortion in the form of a pill which induces a miscarriage or have vacuum aspiration. Neither seemed pleasant but when I went into that room I intended to have the pill. Be at home, carry on like there was nothing wrong. But after being given a list of symptoms, my final termination process would be vacuum aspiration under conscious sedation. This basically means you get a lot of drugs injected into you, and they take five minutes to do the entire process and then you recover. If you’ve watched Sex Education, it’s explained (but a little romanticised) there. I chose that option and then was even asked what I wanted done with the remains, to which I admitted I didn’t know. I left the clinic and went for dinner. Again, you’re on a waiting list. One of two weeks. Two weeks again knowing how awful you feel every day and still having to smile at friends when they joke about being pregnant or ask you why you aren’t drinking. Two weeks.

The day came. I had a discussion in my head as I showered over whether I should shave my pubic area because would that be… you know… polite? I went to the clinic with everything they ask you to have. Pads, a night gown, ibuprofen and snacks. You sit in a waiting room, surrounded again by a variety of women. Some telling people down the phone that they’ll be okay and others being reassured by friends whilst they share a packet of biscuits. All while Judge Judy is on in the background.

I was called into another room, and asked if I know what is happening that day. They asked if I am being pressured into it. I said no. They asked if I wanted a packet of biscuits. I said yes. They took my temperature and blood pressure and then gave me the pill to start the process. To have an abortion you really need your cervix to be relaxed so they give you a pill under your tongue to help that process. It tastes awful and crumbles in an undesirable way. I was thankful for the biscuits. I was sent out again to sit in the waiting room.

You are sat in a small cubicle along a wall with other girls in. Each sitting in a gown waiting for a stranger to call you into a new room

Twenty minutes later it’s time. You are sat in a small cubicle along a wall with other girls in. Each sitting in a gown waiting for a stranger to call you into a new room all over again. I was told to go to the bathroom whilst waiting, and I glance into the recovery room to see several girls looking sick, pale, sad and tired. I knew I am about to be one of them. It didn’t stop me.

Here I am going to put a disclaimer. None of this process is pleasant but this is certainly the worst part. If you don’t want to know how an abortion feels, do not read this.

I heard my name called and I respond as cheerfully as appropriate. A woman asked me if I know what’s about to happen, and I responded with ‘vacuum aspiration under conscious sedation.’ The woman looked mildly shocked and let me know how very few women actually remember the name of the process.

abortion map
Abortion access in Europe (Centre for Reproductive Rights, 2019)

I was shown into a brightly lit room with a doctor and nurse. Admittedly my memory gets hazy here due to me lying down and getting a bunch of drugs injected in my arm, essentially making me too high to register most of the pain. They work fast and hard, yet what happened next is still incredibly unpleasant. Your legs are placed on two holds and a man scoots in with a machine you can hear but cannot see. All of a sudden you feel your gut start turning over with something very intrusive moving around. It sort of feels like how it’s described medically. They put a vacuum, or something similar, very deep into your vagina and move it around to every corner until there is nothing left. My hands clenched and I tried to be as motionless and emotionless as I could. It hurt but because the process only last 5-10 minutes, you grit your teeth not wanting to look weak. At least that’s what I did.

They told me it was over and sat me up. No sign of the machine. They must hide it from patients to not let them see anything too traumatising. There was blood on my legs and where my buttocks had just been. I was immediately given my underwear with a large pad on it and stood up. I stumbled a little into yet another room where I was placed in a large arm chair and given a hot chocolate and water. It was done. It was over. There was nothing more I could do. I heard a girl crying near me about how she didn’t want to be a failure of a mother because she was a failure in everything else. I felt sick. Very sick. I  just wanted to go to bed.  After a quick consultation of what happens after next, I did.

I immediately felt better. No more nausea. No more pain. No more stress. I felt okay. I felt human. Sad, but human.

The next day I felt revived. Friends who knew what happened saw an immediate difference in everything I did. I smiled more, I ate, I danced around the kitchen. I was me again. But, at what cost?

I’m not a fool. I know what happened. I know how sad I am about what happened on too many levels to talk about here. I wonder frequently, if there is a hell, am I eternally doomed? I wonder if it was going to be a boy or a girl. I wonder in an alternate universe what I’m doing now. I thought about how I would have raised that kid, what its name might be, how I would juggle starting a career and a child. I worked it all out. I made that life in my head good. But I knew I couldn’t have it. I couldn’t do it. The man who impregnated me didn’t want a child this early and I couldn’t blame him. I knew he was less ready than I was and no matter his good intentions and willfulness to support me, I knew it would be too much for him to handle.

I spent weeks thinking about what might become of my life if I kept the child. Pro-life advocates did not

I spent weeks thinking about what might become of my life if I kept the child. Pro-life advocates did not. They didn’t have to sit there thinking constantly about every potential consequence of actions past and future. What each option could offer and how a termination in the end, was truly the only option you had. It was out of everything, truly the lesser evil. I did. I thought about it.

Pro-life advocates try to make my experience one of irredeemable shame. They have never suffered through what I did, so I cannot believe that they think they’re an authority on the matter, or in fact have any right to advise others what to do.

Some of their ‘well meaning’ arguments also rub me up the wrong way. The day – and I mean the day – I found out I was pregnant, I started calling every doctor and clinic near me to try and stop the process as soon as possible. It was made clear in that moment what I wanted to do. That was at 4 weeks. Before a fetus’ heart starts to beat and yet, no matter how hard I fought, there was no physical way for me to get an abortion earlier than 10 weeks. If pro-life advocates really cared they’d push for better funding of early pregnancy technology. Instead, they cite articles using terms like ‘pre-born children’ or say that an at-home abortion is comparable to ‘back alley’ abortions, which is both laughable and misleading to what medically happens in pregnancy and pill-induced miscarriages. They believe that new abortion legislation makes abortion legal up to the point of birth for normal abortions, which is fundamentally not the case. This is about life endangering situations, yet pro-life advocates rely on sources that gloss over this, with no hesitation in trying to mislead your supporters.

They believe that new abortion legislation makes abortion legal up to the point of birth for normal abortions, which is fundamentally not the case

Their goals are about themselves. They are not supporting women like me. They are talking between themselves about hypothetical situations in which you might be pregnant and give the baby to someone who wants it, or how you’d raise them themselves. They aren’t people who are affected by the process because it hasn’t happened to them. Stop feigning some sort of victimisation because fetuses are aborted. I had an abortion because I needed one. Physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, I could not support another human.

No one is asking for their help. No one. If women are looking for advice, they can go to medical professionals as I did. Or friends, or families or loved ones. Women need doctors, nurses and clinics to discuss the process of both birth and termination. They do not need or want pro-life groups.

*Paula Smith is a pseudonym used at the request of the author

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, the following organisations can be contacted for guidance and support:

BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service): Telephone: 03457 30 40 30 Email: info@bpas.org

Marie Stopes UK: Telephone: 0345 300 8090 You can find their website here.

Umbrella: Telephone: 0121 237 5700 You can find their website here.