As part of episode #1416 of All The Best we’ve been sharing women’s stories of abortion. This is Marisa’s.
artwork by Leah Goren
I had my abortion later in life, and I have many regrets around it, but no regrets at all about terminating my pregnancy.
My partner and I made a decision very early in our relationship not to have children, but it was not a decision we came to easily. We wrestled with it through most of our thirties. I’d suffered from a rare neurological disorder since childhood. I’m generally a happy person, but this condition takes a toll on my life, and my partner’s life. I can’t work full time, or drive, and I’m out of action about 50% of the time. Having grown up in poor health, with a mother who was in poor health, I made a decision very young not to have children. Any child I had might win the genetic lottery and be okay healthwise, but they’d still have a mother who couldn’t be there for them the way I believe a mother needs to be.
Of course, I don’t believe the decision to have children or not should be an entirely rational one. I think you have to look very deep in your heart. We did that too, we dug deep, and we found that although a part of us loved the idea of family, we didn’t want to make the extra sacrifices that we’d have to make to have one. We’d both cared for young children in our lives, so we knew how hard it was.
We went to the doctor to discuss permanent contraception. But having my tubes tied would cost $5,000, and my partner couldn’t face having a vasectomy, which I could completely understand. So we used other methods.
When I was forty-one, my health suddenly took a dive. I suffered dreadful fatigue, my periods became erratic, and I suffered a depression so profound it felt like the inside of my head was filled with concrete. My doctor told me there wasn’t much else he could do, so I changed doctors, hoping a second opinion could help. My new doctor diagnosed early menopause. When I asked her about the depression, she said dismissively, “Depression is very common with brain disorders.”
So I let her add an antidepressant drug to the neurological drugs I was already taking. I went to see her twice over the next few weeks, begging her to help as my period seemed to have stopped entirely. She put me on HRT and said “Don’t worry, your period will come. Just hang in there and see me again when it does.”
At Christmas, we joined another couple, close friends at the time, to spend Christmas together in a house we’d rented. They were pregnant with a much-longed-for child. I was happy for them, but having a baby over the age of forty was so out of step with my values, I was worried for them. I supported them and kept my concerns to myself, but it wasn’t something I’d do.
When they heard my story, they both went: “Are you sure you might not be pregnant? It actually sounds like you have some of the symptoms!” I explained that it was impossible, that the doctor had said I was menopausal. But the idea took root, so I went to the chemist and bought a test. And on boxing day, I found out that I couldn’t have been more pregnant. The line was blue blue blue.
I was numb, afraid, giddy with relief, angry and horrified. I felt so furious with the doctor, and so furious with myself for being so stupid. But my ability to think straight had been compromised by the pregnancy itself.
“Are you going to tell them?” My partner asked.
I replied, “They’re our friends! Of course.”
So we told them, and gently explained that, as we’d said before, we would not be going ahead with the pregnancy. We moved in progressive, pro-choice circles, so the idea that anyone would object to our logic seemed impossible. We knew it would be hard for them to hear, but I was sure they’d agree that it was wrong to continue with an unwanted pregnancy that had been so badly compromised by neurological drugs and hormone therapies. And to bring an innocent child into a family where the forty-something mother was only functional half the time, with almost no family support available at all?
So it was a complete shock when my friend’s husband had a meltdown at the dinner table when we explained everything. He begged us to keep the child, actually bursting into tears at one point. He assured us that HE’D look after the baby for us, that he’d be looking after their baby, so an extra one wouldn’t hurt. He refused to accept that my health was a problem – look at all the things I’ve done with my life so far. And look what a great father my partner would be?
He made me promise to look at the ultrasound – when I saw the baby’s heartbeat, he promised me, my heart would melt and I’d just want the baby. At the time I was too numb to argue, but now I’m just staggered by the cruelty and ignorance behind his sentimentalised notions of motherhood.
My friend was more understanding, but she too felt that I should go ahead with the pregnancy. She’d been around when I was going through the “will we or won’t we?” stage in my thirties. Her reasoning was that life is not perfect, or perfectible, and I should play the hand that nature had given me. “Besides,” she said, “By the look of you, it might be too late for an abortion anyway.”
This sent me into a very quiet flatspin. I locked myself in my room and desperately called one of my oldest and dearest friends, a new Mum herself, breaking into hysterical sobs as I told her what had happened. I was terrified for myself, and for the baby, and for my partner.
“Don’t worry,” she told me. “It’s not too late. Here’s what you do.”
I followed her instructions and booked myself into a clinic in the centre of Sydney, and the next day I called my old GP to tell him what had happened and check that it was a good place. “It’s very good,” he said sympathetically. “Come and see me after you go there.”
Meanwhile, my friend’s husband refused to speak to me. He begged by partner to talk me into keeping the baby. He behaved so badly my partner told him to back off, and my friend told me quietly, “Quite frankly, I’m sick of his behaviour.”
In hindsight, I wish I’d thrown a tantrum, packed the car, and left. But my friend panicked when I gently suggested that we leave. I put her feelings first. She was, after all, sixteen weeks pregnant. I really wish I’d put myself first.
The radio played Nick Cave’s “Hallelujah” on the morning that we went to the abortion clinic, and it became our theme song for the heavy sadness of the next few weeks. But the clinic was actually wonderful – clean, modern, free of protesters thank God. We joined a queue behind a cluster of teenage boys, there to support a female friend. One of the boys got this Beavis and Butthead-style case of the giggles. My partner and I exchanged grim smiles. We got that he was just stressed and weirded out, but it was challenging. The receptionist looked at him sternly and said: “I don’t think that’s really appropriate, do you?” That stopped him.
In New South Wales, abortions are legal if they put the mother’s physical or psychological health at risk. Most people therefore have to see a counsellor and have theirs under the “psychological health” banner. It’s a bit of a joke, to be honest. We didn’t have time to go under the “physical health’ banner, get letters from my doctor etc. So I just saw the counsellor and she filled out the paperwork. She was just going through the motions.
I told her about my friend’s husband. I was so wounded by it, and so tearfully angry. She shook her head. “He should not have projected on you like that,” she said.
The doctor and anaesthetist and nurses were all incredibly kind. For some stupid reason, I asked the doctor for an ultrasound. He said he’d do it, but he didn’t. Thank god. He informed me that I was fifteen weeks pregnant, and would I sign something agreeing that I would never have children if I went ahead with this pregnancy. I signed it, feeling numb.
After I woke up, my partner took me home and I slept for a while, and called my Mum and told her what had happened. She was shocked, but supportive. “Your partner would have ended up caring for both you and the child.”
My partner and I cried together. It was a choice we’d made for the sake of the baby too, and we honoured that, but it was still terribly sad.
I reached out to a few of my friends for support, and found that the men struggled with it a bit more than the women. It was a bit disappointing to see. The best help I had was from a brilliant, artistic soul who suffered from an anxiety disorder. She said: “For me, the abortion itself was quite a feminist experience.” And I knew what she meant. It was very empowering to walk into the clinic and have everyone go: “We respect your decision.” She added: “I value kids too much to knowingly bring one into the care of an emotionally unstable mother. And although it’s a terrible thing, I don’t believe it’s murder. To me, a fetus is about the same as a fish.” She said this as a person who wouldn’t hurt a fly, so I knew what she meant. I have conflicted feelings about the use of embryos in scientific research, but I was comforted by the knowledge that the fetus I aborted had no brain cells at fifteen weeks, for I firmly believe that the brain is where a person resides.
I still feel desperately upset about my abortion, and I cry when I see pre-natal pictures. But when I search my feelings, I also feel very relieved, and very sure that I did the right thing. And when I search very very deeply, I feel that the tears and trauma was almost all about my friend’s husband’s reaction, and this weird feeling that I’m “supposed” to be upset. I pride myself on knowing my own mind, and still feel very deeply hurt by his conservative attitude.