From the moment I became interested in women’s reproductive health – in the first instance, mine – it seemed patently clear that when it came to controlling their own fertility, women were not to be trusted.
I discovered that the entire subject was engulfed in laws and language that had a paternalistic ring. But instead of a Father Knows Best approach it was more like Everybody Else Knows Best. Governments. Churches. Lawmakers. Lobby Groups. The Neighbours.
It seemed that when it came to one of the most intensely private and personal matters a woman can face, there were more uninvolved and uninvited folk clamouring to have their say about my reproductive rights than about any other issue I could name; more people who thought they should make it their own business, usually as vocally and vehemently as possible.
It was perplexing. On the one hand we had generations of women who had been monitoring their bodies’ changes, its ebbs and flows, its aches and pains, from a very young age; women who knew intimately the challenges and cycles of the life force that they inhabited.
On the other hand, those same women were not deemed sufficiently trustworthy to make decisions about their own bodies. Not when it came to an unwanted pregnancy. Not when it came to abortion.
This has always deeply disturbed me. It follows, does it not, that if so many rules and regulations, not to mention ranting strangers who claim to know best, are required to determine whether a woman can access a termination or not, that society is saying to the women concerned, we’ll make this decision for you?
With this as the kicker – because we don’t trust you to make the correct decision on your own. And, I suspect, that hoary old head-patting addendum – because, if you do try to make a big decision like this on your own, you’ll end up being sorry.
Often it has been that assertion that women will be sorry, full of regret, that has been used to support much of the debate against and the laws surrounding abortion. Again, a terribly paternalistic, disempowering tone has flourished. You’ll be sorry. You’ll regret it. You’ll pay the price for making your own decision to terminate a pregnancy with a lifetime of ruing the day.
I also suspect that, no matter what else they do with their lives in their lifetimes, women are considered to be so utterly defined by their mothering role that it is impossible for many in our society to believe that women are actually able to move on and thrive following an abortion.
However, that had never been my experience in discussions with women I know who have had a termination. Not a one.
Certainly, they had often expressed sorrow at the circumstances that they had found themselves in when pregnant. At not being in an economic position, or an appropriate relationship, or at a stage in their career – any number of reasons – that made them feel able to continue with their pregnancy. But to a woman they had moved on, confident the choice they had made to terminate had been the right one for them.
Recently released research from the USA has shown that these women whose experiences I refer to anecdotally are not alone.
In fact, according to Corinne Rocca, study researcher and an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, ” Claims that women suffer from psychological harm from their abortions, and that large proportions of women come to regret their abortions over time, at least in these data, are simply not true.”
According to Rocca, the researchers looked at 667 women who had abortions between 2008 and 2010 at 30 American clinics. The cohort of women who participated was demographically similar to women in the USA as a whole.
The participants answered questions about their experiences every six months for three years after the procedure. Half were terminating pregnancies within the first trimester, while the other half were having abortions that fell close to the gestational age limit at their respective facilities.
The study found that 95% of the women said they felt they had made the right choice in terminating their pregnancies. Ninety-Five percent! That’s a lot of women who felt they had made the right decision. For themselves. And the researchers found no difference in post-abortion experiences between women who had early abortions and those who had late ones.
They also found that women reported both positive (happiness, relief) and negative (anger, guilt, sadness) emotional responses to abortion and that the intensity of these emotions declined over time. Women also reported that their emotions about the abortion became less intense as time went on and also that they thought about the abortion less frequently with time. At three years out, women reported thinking about the abortion only “rarely”, Rocca said.
“Relief remains the most dominant emotion felt at every time period over the three years after the abortion,” she said.
It is clear that when it comes to controlling their own fertility women can, as in other areas of our lives, make and take very difficult decisions. We do it all the time. Daily.
We can and do work out what is right for us as individuals and for our family units, all circumstances considered. We can and do follow through on those decisions, often experiencing initial and perfectly understandable sadness, anger, guilt. Of course there are negative emotions surrounding an abortion. But experiencing those emotions and regretting the abortion are very different things.
Women can be trusted to make the most difficult of decisions because nobody knows better than we do, no other individual or group, just what is right for us. And we can emerge from the experience whole, relieved and, yes, happy.