Hundreds of NZ women are told every year that their request for an abortion is ‘not justified’. One woman describes the response she encountered, and why she feels betrayed by a system that continues to view women seeking termination through a lens of criminality
Are you not with the father? Were you ever together? Had you not heard of contraception? Did you have some kind of religious guilt? Why weren’t you on contraception? What kind of contraception were you on? Have you thought about adoption? Did you forget to take the pill that morning? Are you on the DPB? When are you going back to work? Why were you just having a fling? Are you going to make it work together? Have you been pregnant before?
I was a typical cheesy, selfish, single, mid-30s middle-class woman who, because I came from a large family, never had any expectations put on me to have children. No uteruses crying out, no biological clock ticking, nothing. I was right at the start of this big upwards career trajectory, having quit my fulltime job months earlier to do contract work from home. I had just started looking to buy a little unit, or a house, or an apartment – whatever I could afford. Having children was not in my life plan – that’s where I was at.
When I found out I was pregnant I had been having, let’s say, a little bit of fun with someone I knew. Nothing more than that. I was using contraception throughout, not that it’s anyone’s fucking business. People always like to ask. I had been getting very sick at the time and, after being rushed to hospital, I found out I had an infection. They treated me but I wasn’t responding to things in the right way, so they did a blood test.
When I got a little bit better they told me that I was eight weeks pregnant.
My initial response was to throw up into the doctor’s waste paper basket. I was scared, but because I came from a middle-of-the-road family in the middle of Auckland, I naively assumed that I would be able to get around our abortion laws easily. I just thought if I wanted one, I could get one. I hadn’t come from a religious background, my family believed in women’s rights and the right to choose, there was just no confusion there whatsoever.
When I processed the news, I looked at the doctor and the first thing I said was “I’ve got to make a decision then.” I knew I had to have an abortion in my head, but my middle-class politeness took over. He told me that, if that was my stance, then he would have to refer me on to another doctor. That didn’t immediately compute in my brain, it was only as he explained his legal right to refer that I clicked this doctor was judging me for the decision I was about to make.
Maybe I was living in a liberal bubble at the time, but I had completely forgotten that people still thought negatively about abortions. Regardless, right from the get-go it was set up as a negative procedure to me, and that didn’t waver once. I got referred to the next doctor, who started running through a whole lot of questions. They asked me if I drank, if I took drugs, about my job stability and my relationship status.
The one thing that dawned on me was when the doctor said, “we’ve got your medical records here, and I see that you’ve had depression in the past.” I agreed – I’ve always been very open about it – and even made a weird joke. “Yes,” I said, “me and everyone else that I’ve known in my whole life.” They continued listing all the places where I had sought mental health help in the past, all the while I was agreeing. I didn’t feel ashamed at all, not realising that this was the second point in the process where I was failing their criteria.
The doctors asked me if anyone in my immediate family had passed away recently. I had a parent that had just died, after being terminally ill for a number of years, and told them so, and that I thought it was a good thing after years and years of suffering. As anyone who has lost someone to terminal illness knows, it’s obviously a sad time but also a happy time.
With hindsight, I came to realise I had been far too honest in my answers to their questions. It was like I had been instantly thrown into a test, except no-one had told me I was being tested. They continued asking me questions, including one which at the time I naively thought was just standard: “Are you being pressured by the father of your child to have an abortion?” I told them that I was, but it was none of his business, we weren’t together and I wasn’t making any decisions based on him. That was another strike against me, but I thought it was all cool at the time.
I thought there were only two steps in the process and, after talking to two doctors, I naively thought it was finished. It wasn’t. They told me I needed to be sent through to the abortion provider to undergo some counselling. During this time, I was ringing my big sister and updating her every step of the way, and she was just as shocked at the hurdles as I was. I wasn’t prepared for how long it would take to get an appointment, because the providers like Family Planning are so underfunded that there can be quite long delays in getting the counsellor to talk to you.
It took me until the next week to get an appointment – and you have to remember how crucial every week is when discussing abortions. By the time I was talking to the secondary doctor I was nearing the end of week nine. With week 12 as the cut off, I was getting quite near the time but was still optimistic. Besides, it was just a bunch of cells and DNA in my body that I no longer wanted to have in my body. People tried to guilt trip me saying it was a part of me, and I would just remind them that every sneeze has DNA in it.
At the second appointment they didn’t really ask me any questions. I’d like to note that this stage I was paying for the privilege of these appointments. The previous doctor had explained that they would do some counselling during this session, and I would have the procedure the next day. As I sat down, the provider skipped right past the questions and explained that they had “concerns with my test”.
That’s when it first dawned on me that I might not actually be allowed to have an abortion all.
I remember drilling them about what the actual problem was. I remember asking them, “is this a problem with my mental health background?” and them saying I would have to be referred back to my previous doctor to discuss those needs. They wouldn’t give me an answer. It felt like the decision had already been made for me but nobody would tell me why. They were using any excuse not to answer any questions. They were so hung up on ticking boxes and filling out forms that they were ignoring the person right in front of them.
I was overwhelmed. I cried a lot. I cried for about three days straight. That’s not a great way to react to news of a pregnancy. I tried my hardest to argue with them, I asked if there were any other avenues we could look at, all of those things. I thought I had done everything right, I had knocked on all the doors, I had gone through the process. And, at every turn, I had been told no. You can’t help but backtrack when everyone is telling you no. I was also quite sick at the time and dealing with morning sickness. The 12-week mark was looming down on me.
I was exhausted.
I rang my big sister to tell her the latest news, feeling like she was the one person in the world I knew I could turn to. I had tried to turn all the people that I was supposed to, and it hadn’t worked. You know how it is with older siblings, you feel as if they can solve all the world’s problems for you. I just remember her saying, “well, I guess you’re going to become a mum.” That was it. My life direction was changed instantly.
I had been saving to buy my own place but now, as a single person about to have a baby, they wouldn’t secure the loan for the apartment that I was looking at. I got really sick and had to go down to Work and Income to see if I could get an allowance to help once I had my child. They saw that I had my little bit of money for my apartment, and told me I had to live off that. I tried to go back and do my masters degree, and then I found out that Paula Bennett had flicked the ladder out from beneath me and every other single mother.
I am ashamed that it took me so long to realise just how much the system fails so many people, but it was a complete eye-opener. I went through the system to try and not have a baby, and it failed me.
People always say to me, “oh, but you wouldn’t wish it any different now, would you?” The answer, as a feminist, is that I would. I love my child to the end of the world, we are an absolute team and I am a fantastic mother. But if I could go back and change it, I would change it. It wasn’t a great life choice for me, my plans for the future, or the type of life I wanted to be living.
Women should be able to choose and get reproductive health help and feel supported. From that first doctor who said I needed to be referred, to the things that all my peers have said to me over the years, I felt failed. Not only should abortion not be a criminal matter in this country, but the process needs a shake-up. For many people, the structural steps that need to be taken are just too hard. If a woman doesn’t want to have a pregnancy, she shouldn’t have to have it and she shouldn’t have to be made to feel like the worst person in the world.
Also, to the 60 year-old men who want to make decisions about my uterus: you can fuck off. Bill English talks about abortion as if it is covered by some progressive, liberal legislation, but what he doesn’t seem to realise is that this is a normal procedure. We’ve drawn a really boring line in the sand and we have been left so far behind other parts of the world. This is not new, or groundbreaking, this is just standard bloody practice. It all comes down to basic feminism.
That’s all it is: giving women rights to their own bodies.
The author was speaking to Alex Casey
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