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Four women talk about their experiences of getting an abortion in New Zealand

If you view the comments on almost any story on abortion in New Zealand you’ll see assumptions being made about the process by people who haven’t accessed the procedure. Sarah Batkin spoke to four women about their terminations to show the varied experiences people go through in our country.

I went to a symposium last year at the Auckland Writers Festival where Gloria Steinem was the guest speaker. As you would expect from any public event with feminist-centric discussions, the topic of New Zealand’s abortion law came up during a Q and A. A young woman rose from the crowd to ask Gloria what she thought about abortion being in the Crimes Act; much to my surprise, a few older women and men from the crowd started heckling her, yelling “it’s easy to get an abortion in New Zealand!” As if she’d said something wrong or offensive – I could feel her embarrassment and uneasiness from the other side of the room.

I was irate. I wondered why anyone not concerned with abortion being criminalised in our country was even at the event. But it also made me realise that people don’t often get the chance to (or want to) share their experiences of abortion publicly, so assumptions are made about the supposed ease and non-complicated nature of procuring abortions in New Zealand.

“Easy” isn’t the same as accessible.

The current law (enshrined in The Crimes Act 1961 and The Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977) requires anybody seeking an abortion to get permission from two consenting doctors – this, along with having ultrasounds and blood tests to confirm the pregnancy can mean that the process takes a lot longer than it needs to and it diminishes the right to make one’s own choices. Some District Health Board’s also have policies about mandatory counselling prior to getting the abortion: as stated on their website Capital and Coast DHB requires that everyone accessing abortion services from their clinics have counselling before the procedure.

Of course these services are needed at times and it’s fantastic that they’re available, but some people find this cosseting overwhelming and irritating, some are very sure of their decision to terminate a pregnancy and that needs to be respected.  Leaping through a series of legal loopholes only compounds these feelings, which is why I thought it essential to share the stories of four women here, each had their abortion performed in New Zealand. These stories are a testament to the fact that the law needs to be revised.

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“Shit happens and it happened to me.”

Olivia* was 23 when she found out she was pregnant and she knew straight away that she was going to get an abortion, “I just didn’t want to have the child – it wasn’t with the right person, I wasn’t financially stable, and I was on my own.”

After the double blue bars appeared on two separate pregnancy tests she immediately made the necessary appointments to confirm she was pregnant and how far along she was; but the process was arduous and a lot longer than she was expecting. “They were so busy, it was almost two months from the day I found out I was pregnant till the day I got the termination. The length of time it takes is totally unnecessary.”

Olivia went on to say this was one of the worst aspects of having an abortion, “I think the most annoying thing was having to be pregnant through this ridiculous process – it took way too long and I just wanted to get it over and done with.”

Though the doctors she visited were supportive and cooperative, the whole thing still seemed shrouded in secrecy and stigma. “The doctor basically gave me a list of things she needed to hear me say in order to give me consent. I told her my family was heavily Catholic and would disown me if they found out – which isn’t entirely true but I felt like if I didn’t make the situation sound really serious then she might not consent.”

All of that for a safe and very common procedure.

Olivia said she was lucky that she had the support of her friends throughout the process but that she felt the support she received from well-meaning doctors and nurses made her feel like she should have felt worse about her unwanted pregnancy.

“They continuously offered me support through the whole process, which I think may be good for people who are conflicted about the decision to get a termination, but for me it was over the top; it made me feel like I shouldn’t have felt the way I did about getting the abortion – like I should have felt worse about it than I did. I’m not heartless, I do want children, however, I shouldn’t have to justify that to other people. But two years on I feel like I still have to.”

“The system in place really does make you feel like a faceless pregnant girl.”

Ema, who was 19 when she got an abortion, had a dream that she had fallen pregnant one night and couldn’t shake the feeling. “I found out I was pregnant very early on; I knew immediately I was going to terminate the pregnancy.” Unfortunately, the pregnancy was an ectopic one (where the zygote implants itself outside of the womb) which complicated matters further. “After speaking to my doctor and learning that the public health care system was going to make me wait up to eight weeks for the procedure I decided to go private. After deciding to attend a private clinic the process took around four weeks.”

She, like Olivia, says that the long wait times and having to jump through numerous hoops made her feel out of control, and all of this was compounded by feeling judged by healthcare professionals and by a family member who disagreed with her decision to terminate, even though the pregnancy wouldn’t have been viable anyway.

“The nurse I dealt with at the private clinic made it clear that it was a technicality, and nothing more, that I needed to state a number of things (serious danger to physical health; serious danger to mental health) in order to qualify. She went as far as agreeing that it was a bullshit deal, but one that was necessary in order for me to get the procedure.”

Because she found out early on in the pregnancy, Ema was able to have a medical abortion which requires two pills to be taken to induce a miscarriage. However her body reacted strongly to one of the pills resulting in a painful miscarriage which she says she “wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy”.

The support that was offered to Ema by her psychiatrist and one of the nurses at the abortion clinic, who stuck around after hours to talk to her, is what got her through the process.

“I remember saying to my close friends a number of times that I was very glad that I was an educated and empowered woman with ample support.”

“Being pregnant simply didn’t fit into my life plan at that time.”

Alice* had just finished her MA when she found out she was pregnant; she was ready to travel and get a job so she knew she wanted to get an abortion. She feels the process was unnecessarily long and that women looking to terminate should be able to have the procedure done sooner and without having to weave through legal loopholes.

“My memory of it is that it took a very long time. I had the abortion in about 2000 which was before medical abortions were available. I would have much preferred to terminate sooner so I’m glad the abortion pill is now an option for New Zealand women.”

Like the other women I talked to she had to wait a number of weeks before all the legal requirements were fulfilled and the procedure could go ahead.

“I did feel embarrassed that I had to pretend that I was at risk of having an ill effect on my mental health – I am a pretty together person and it was an outright lie. The staff member was well used to the charade and played along. It left a bad taste in my mouth.”

However Alice was thankful for the support that she received from the medical staff who she says were very understanding.

Years later, when Alice had children that she’d planned for and wanted, she thought back to the pregnancy that was terminated. “When you want a baby, you are very aware of the pregnancy and the baby, and it very much seems like a real person at 10 or 12 weeks. But at the earlier time, I was able to pretty much ignore it even existed until my appointment.”

“It’s been very apparent how pro-life my mum is and how pro-choice I am.”

Samantha* was only 15 when she found out she was pregnant. She was in an abusive relationship and had an eating disorder so keeping the baby was never an option. “The experience was generally OK. I don’t remember a lot but I remember the doctors asking why I thought I couldn’t continue with the pregnancy. I found all the doctors really supportive. I remember my high school nurse who advised me to take a pregnancy test and how calm and unbiased she was when I said I wanted a termination.”

She said that she was offered counselling services after the abortion but realised that the counselling she needed was for the eating disorder and not for the abortion. “I remember being quite calm about everything, I was more focussed on trying to end my awful relationship and get back to school to see my friends.”

There were some aspects of the process, however, that did make it more difficult, and came from an unexpected place. “The worst part was actually my mum,” she says. “It only really hit me when I was in the hospital bed and my mum started quietly crying. I asked her what was wrong and I’ll never forget her saying ‘I feel sorry for that poor baby’.”

“That comment made me really angry and still does when I think about it, as if she felt like she was going to impact my decision by making me feel guilty.”

Samantha told me her mother went to counselling to work out her feelings about the abortion and said that support for parents could be important for both parties in certain circumstances.

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I’ve publicly discussed New Zealand’s abortion laws several times now and each time I go through the same motions; peeling away the layers of rage, upset and helplessness so I can discuss its various issues without turning it into a two-page polemic. After all, anger can alienate just as easily as it can unite. Each time I try to find consolation in the mere fact that there are platforms that will host these stories about the need to legalise abortion.

But, words have their limits and there’s only so much change these pieces could bring about, which is why my friend Alison Grant and I decided to start a petition in November last year. The response was unexpected – we now have close to 10,000 signatures. Most importantly, it’s given us more insight into how varied the experiences of procuring an abortion in New Zealand are. Signatories of the petition have the option to leave a comment that appears publicly on the page and a lot of people who had terminated pregnancies were leaving their stories for us – and others – to read. Some had gone through the process with relative ease but for others it was harrowing.

In a similar vein, the social media movement Shout Your Abortion was started to encourage people to talk frankly about their experiences, without the heavy weight of stigma. Through this mosaic of experiences a kind of universal truth has emerged: the easier and safer abortions are to access and the more support and acceptance there is, the better the experiences are of the people getting them.

There’s no shame in terminating a pregnancy, whatever the reason may be, and there’s no shame in not being ashamed.

If you think you might be pregnant and aren’t sure what to do you can contact your GP or Family Planning.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

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