To Charlotte – a response to an open letter

A former friend of Tara Hewitt’s has written her a courageous and moving open letter with regards to her stance on abortion, to which I would like to respond offering an alternative perspective as a post-abortive woman.

What Charlotte has to say is valuable and needs addressing – Lauren Ely writing in this month’s  First Things  said that we need to embrace and listen to the voices of all post-abortive women, women who have had an abortion must be heard rather than ignored or theorised away, even if they may be saying things which we do not want to hear.

I believe that pro-life is pro-woman; marginalising the post-abortion stories that we don’t want to hear is a similar tactic to universities and other institutions that seek to silence a pro-life point of view.

Charlotte starts off by noting Tara’s apparent change of views with surprise and sadness. It’s a reaction that I have received from some of my friends of over 20 years standing who have difficulty reconciling the fun-loving, G&T swilling, Marlboro Red-smoking party animal with the orthodox Catholic mother of 4 children. While I’ll always be fun-loving at heart (and most Catholics are, the craic at Catholic gatherings is legendary) actually I grew up, gained a different perspective and am far more contented and at peace than I was in my twenties. A change of politics is often a sign of maturity, conventional wisdom holds that people become more socially conservative with age. It takes a lot of courage to admit that your former views were misguided or just plain wrong.

The issue of abortion is not some abstract debate for me. I’m not part of any “pro-abortion lobby”, but I do believe in a woman’s right to choose. It’s a right I’ve exercised, having had an abortion in my second year of university-

The same goes for me. The issue of abortion is not an abstract debate either and if you do read this Charlotte, I’m genuinely sorry to hear that you found yourself in a situation where you felt you needed to chose an abortion. I’ve been there too.

When I had an abortion, I didn’t think of it as a right, though that may be because it was back in the late ’90s when attitudes to abortion weren’t thought of rights – the internet was in its infancy and today’s narrative of media feminism including ‘reproductive rights’ hadn’t crossed my radar.

Actually one of the things which really shocked me about the whole process was that I was well aware of the law and believed that I would really need to firmly state my case for wanting an abortion. I understood that this was a serious thing, I did believe that it was a life in theory, but also thought that by the time I had the abortion just under the 9 week stage, it was neither a ‘baby’, nor ‘human’, was not properly formed, no bigger than a grain of rice, wouldn’t feel a thing, and therefore it wasn’t quite as a bad as say, aborting a twins just 1 day shy of the 24 week limit which someone close to me had done, following severe pressure from their family. Anyway, I found that no justification was needed whatsoever, I don’t know whether or not I had counselling, I made an appointment with Marie Stopes, saw a woman in a room with a box of tissues on the table, she asked me why I wanted an abortion, I told her and she responded that I was in no position to be able to cope with a baby.

I never once thought of abortion as being a ‘right’, I was pro-choice in that I thought it was better that women could have safe legal abortions rather than die horribly at the hands of a back-street butcher. Subsequent research  and statistics illustrate that this is something of a popular myth.

Telling me that having the child (though there is no guarantee that it would have survived to term, even without a termination) would have been better is telling me that I should have been forced to be pregnant against my will, at risk to my mental and physical wellbeing, just because that’s what your moral values say. Surely, you can see how unfair that is.

I don’t know how many weeks pregnant you were but statistically speaking once you’ve got to around the 10 week mark, there’s a very good chance that your baby would have made it to term. The UK has unacceptably high levels of stillbirth (death after 24 weeks in pregnancy) compared to other countries, in 2012 1 in 200 births were to a stillborn child, but that’s still a minor risk. 1 in 7 pregnancies end in miscarriage (before 24 weeks) the vast majority occurring in the first trimester.

In terms of being forced to be pregnant against your will which could risk your mental and physical wellbeing, I completely understand. It would be lying to pretend that pregnancy does not put you under physical and mental strain, pregnant women are generally recognised to be vulnerable, they are not ill, but their bodies are working hard to provide sustenance and life support for the baby. Having an unplanned pregnancy in less than ideal circumstances is hard. I can vouch for that. But the point isn’t really about one person trying to impose their moral values on another, but accepting that the baby is a human life (certainly biologically speaking) and therefore abortion, like it or not imposes your moral values on your baby, denies that its life has any value or consequence and terminates it according to your will. It might seem unfair and an attack on bodily autonomy (although they are not a physical part of your body) for you to be prevented from having an abortion, but to be blunt, it’s equally unfair on the unborn child to have their life ended because you do not want to carry them for nine months nor give birth to them, even though you may have felt that you had compelling reasons.

I know that sounds hard and I do sympathise, remember I too have been in your place.

Pregnancy takes a huge toll on a woman’s body, and I have friends who have had conditions like hyperemesis throughout theirentire pregnancy. For them, the child at the end made it all worth it. For me, it would have been nine months of suffering to then give my child away, or raise it in completely unsuitable conditions- a double punishment, and for what? Having the audacity to have sex?

Yep, I’m not going to deny it, pregnancy does exact a massive toll on a woman’s body. I’ve had hyperemesis in all of my pregnancies which at times I have found intolerable, especially with existing toddlers to take care of. I’ve laid on my bed and howled in pain like an injured animal, I can’t go out in the early stages of pregnancy without a stash of plastic bags in my pocket to handily vomit into, throwing up into a rubbish bin on Brighton’s London Road while people walked past in disgust was not one of my finer moments. At times I would have done anything to make the relentless nausea, growing pains and headaches go away, I’ve been terrified that I wouldn’t be able to look after yet another baby or cope, but every time I’ve managed it. I’m no superhero – I think we women are much stronger than perhaps we give ourselves credit for and as you say the baby themselves is always worth it. Besides not every woman finds pregnancy a harrowing experience, some positively bloom! The physical discomfort is only ever temporary and if it were so terrible, women would never have any more than one child.

You say that you would have had to have given your baby away or raise it in unsuitable conditions. Doesn’t that make you want to fight to remedy that injustice, so that women are not forced between a rock and a hard place? Chances are you would not have wanted or been able to give your child away and though it wouldn’t have been easy, I suspect you would have coped. You talk about unsuitable conditions, society encourages us to believe that in order to thrive that a child must be born into certain ‘ideal’ situations. I often talk about this myself in that I believe that it is ideal for a child to be born to married parents and to have a mother and a father. Your situation would have been less than ideal, however many single mothers do a fabulous job and so do many non-conventional families (contrary to what people might have you believe is my stance on this).

While we shouldn’t contrive or encourage however is situations which are less than ideal. In the case of a single mother or young pregnant student – no it isn’t ideal but with the right support she can raise a baby and complete her degree. It is a disgrace that in the case of students there often really is very little practical choice, again it’s something I have personally experienced, I was told that I would not be able to bring a newborn baby to lectures and seminars and yet the nursery wouldn’t admit babies under 6 months old. Accommodation, facilities and opportunities for student parents are either non-existent or low quality. You are made to feel like a pariah. While I do not condone your decision, I can fully understand what motivated you to take it. You could have kept your baby, but it would have been too much of a self-sacrifice, which is not meant pejoratively.

Having a baby should never be thought of as punishment – that’s an attitude that’s often projected onto pro-lifers and one that horrifies me. It says that having a newborn baby is a terrible and dreadful fate whereas most women, even those in very difficult circumstances don’t ever regret their child. Having a baby will always entail some hardship and self-sacrifice, some women will find it more fulfilling than others, but we should be working for a society which always welcomes children. I don’t know of a single pro-lifer who isn’t terribly concerned about the welfare of mothers who have had an unplanned or crisis pregnancy.

I have friends from various faith groups, from Muslim to Mormon, and although many of them might not have an abortion themselves, they’re not coming after my right to.

Abortion isn’t a legal right in this country. The way the law is currently interpreted and practiced can make it seem like that, but you must fulfil one of the prescribed criteria.

You can hold, and express, whatever personal opinions you want but free speech also means the freedom to disagree with you and to hold you to account for what you say. This isn’t about your right to a religion but that you are in a position to impose your views on others who do not share them. You work as a diversity consultant for the NHS where you have an input into patient care, and you are seeking elected office where you will be able to vote on many matters of conscience like abortion and surrogacy.

Completely agree with the first sentence. I think we can accept for many people pro-life views are part and parcel of a religious view, although they can legitimately be held outside of a faith. In terms of imposing views on others – every single person in this country would like to see the law reflect, or impose, their particular viewpoint. You’d like to see the law reflect the point of view that abortion is a right and unborn babies can be terminated. I’d like the law to reflect the right to life of the unborn.

The diversity consultancy role is irrelevant, Tara is not in a position to impose her views on anyone, her input into patient care will not extend to making decisions about terminating pregnancies. There is nothing that Tara has said that would indicate that she would like to punish or cause harm to women seeking abortions or needing aftercare. The elected office is a fair point, although it should be noted that we have elected politicians who do take a similar stance to Tara and a cross-party All Party Parliamentary Pro-life Group. Being pro-life should not disbar you from entering politics though of course the voters have a right to know your views on these matters.

Women who have abortions face enough stigma and shaming, don’t be part of the problem. When you say things like this, it feels like a personal attack. From someone who was once a friend, it’s an extra kick in the teeth. I don’t need you to believe what I did was right or justified, I just need you to stop mouthing off on Twitter about how it isn’t and adding to a ‘debate’ that may one day mean a girl in my situation won’t have the choice I did. I can guarantee I would not be here today if I had been forced to go through with my pregnancy.

The meaning is clear. Charlotte, you are saying that when someone disagrees with your decision, especially if it is a friend then it feels like a personal attack. Sometimes friends have to tell the truth as they see it, a friendship that blindly affirms for the sake of peace is probably not all that genuine. My closest friends often tell me uncomfortable things that I would rather not hear, but I know that they do so with my best interests at heart. I would rather that no-one felt that they had to lie to me.

This is an attempt to shut debate down, by framing your desire not to feel uncomfortable about your abortion as being a need. But let’s talk stigma and shame for a moment.

The ONLY stigma and shame I have ever been made to feel was by two different groups of people. One was the clinic staff, who from start to finish made me feel like a shameful naughty little girl who had been exceptionally stupid. I think this is where a lot of shame comes from when it comes to abortion. Not necessarily the abortion itself (although it often kicks in later when you have a wanted pregnancy) but we are programmed to believe that pregnancy is avoidable, that sex is safe. Therefore when contraception doesn’t work as we’d hoped, whether through user error or other failure we are so used to believing that we are in control of our own fertility and bodies, that we feel stupid, especially if it was our ‘fault’ and the failure was preventable.

Part of this is historic and dare I say due to patriarchal attitudes about a girl having got herself into trouble and so on, but it’s not from the part of pro-lifers or religious people. Without exception every single person who knows that I have had an abortion have told me how sorry they are about it. There has been no judgement, only compassion and love. The ‘judgement’ that post-abortive women often feel, is more often than not projection or an over-sensitivity, drawing inferences which were not meant. Stating that all babies have a right to life is absolutely not the same thing as calling post-abortive women murderers, which is a phrase I am extremely careful not to use, not least as I don’t believe it to be true.

Pro-lifers understand the complexities of unplanned pregnancies far more than they are given credit for; one organisation I know of, literally picks up women off the street who have been chucked out of the clinic early and who are literally vomiting and fainting. They administer first aid, love compassion and care and help the woman to get home safely, i.e. what the clinics should have done. Those are not the actions of haters or judgementalists.

The judgement I have had for having an abortion came from the clinic staff and various pro-choicers as well as liberal ‘Catholics’ who have tried to use my abortion to shame me. “How can she be pro-life when she’s had an abortion herself”. “Having an abortion is not a badge of honour, I don’t know why the Catholics are patting her on the back”. “She wants to deny others the same choice she had herself”. I’ve had my abortion discussed on Twitter by a group of people I’ve never met, making huge assumptions and using it to as a weapon to undermine my credibility.

While I cannot avoid responsibility, I also know that like most women, my decision was not made in a vacuum. I really felt that there was little other choice and used sophistry to argue away the existence of my unborn child. My experience was so horrific and so damaging, that I vowed to fight that no other woman should have to go through it. It is not hypocritical because I don’t for one moment try to justify my abortion as being the right thing for me whilst arguing that nobody else should have it. I recognise that my choice was neither free and the decision was flawed. I can accept that other people will agree with this, whilst still thinking that I am a decent person. What I do know though without a shadow of a doubt, is that I would have been a great mother to the child I aborted despite the obstacles, some of which I over-estimated in my shock, panic and terror.

Can you Charlotte, really guarantee what would have happened had you continued with the pregnancy? From my experience pregnancy is often a terrifying time especially if it’s your first one and sometimes even when its planned, you can have the jitters. There are so many anxieties, your changing body, the prospect of birth, of adapting to being a mother, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the fear of the unknown.

The letter ends with asking Tara to shut up in no uncertain terms, emphasising the idea of bodily autonomy and a woman’s right to life, one which inherently rejects that of the baby or foetus.

Poignantly in the comments, another woman confesses to having an abortion due to contraception failure, states that she believes it was the right thing, she would be a ruinous mother, but nonetheless, despite going on to have two children, she still suffers from guilt. An NHS diversity consultant condemning her, only exacerbates that.

Here’s the thing. Many women will feel guilty post-abortion because they will instinctively know that they have taken action to end the life of their child. Memories of abortion are often resurrected in subsequent pregnancies. I felt guilty after mine, not because of some sort of religious programming or cultural indoctrination (my parents are firmly pro-choice and my Catholic school didn’t go in for pro-life education) but because philosophically I think I’d always accepted life began at conception. There was also an intuitive visceral ache immediately afterwards.

But this guilt is neither deserved, nor is it imposed, it stems from the conscience which knows that a life with all it’s potential, has ended. Hence the ‘what if’. A pro-life, anti-abortion viewpoint is often painful to post-abortive women which is why they don’t wish it expressed. The ‘judgement’ or ‘condemnation’ they feel is imagined, no pro-lifers hate or condemn me or any woman who has had an abortion. A viewpoint that says ‘abortion is wrong’ confirms any anxieties or negative feelings that a woman may have had and understandably causes defensiveness.

But the upshot is not that Charlotte, or the anonymous commentator are nasty, uncaring, bad, immoral, feckless, ignorant or naive women. They made a decision to terminate the life of an unborn child,  in difficult circumstances. Making a wrong decision is not indicative of moral character or fibre. The decision may be wrong, it doesn’t follow that the person is therefore a ‘bad-un’.

Do we have to be so reliant on the affirmation of others that we have to shut or shout them down? Or is there something else deep-seated and unresolved, hence the recurrent feelings of guilt and anger?

There are plenty of secular and religious organisations out there who can help with post-abortion counselling and who do not judge women or introduce elements of guilt  but help them to talk through their feelings about and come to terms with their abortion experience. Sometimes just acknowledging the loss can prove enormously healing.

If you have read this far – thank you. For what it’s worth my faith tells me both of our children will be in heaven, praying for us.

4 thoughts on “To Charlotte – a response to an open letter

  1. As much as I disagree with much of your position, it is one I respect, particularly as it is rooted both in your own experience and your religious faith, and I think it was incredibly brave of you to share your story. I still don’t accept Tara’s position and wish for her to (attempt to) justify it or refer back to the last line in my original piece.

    There’s a number of issues I take with this piece, and I’ll do my best to lay them out as concisely:

    1) The ‘right’ to an abortion is an issue of semantics in many respects. To have a legal abortion is to exercise the right to obtain one if you fit the criteria- or, to not *not* have the right (I hope that makes sense?). It doesn’t have to be an inalienable right to be a right.

    2) I was about seven weeks along when I terminated my pregnancy. The foetus would have been around the size of a blueberry, was not detectable by ultrasound, and could not be considered viable outside of living parasitically (I mean that in the biological sense, not as a perjorative) off me. I don’t believe life begins at birth, or conception, but there’s an argument to be made about sentience which is relevant here. I am, under anyone’s definition, a sentient being. The pregnancy would have been high risk for mother and foetus for a number of reasons, but I don’t think it was wrong to prioritise my own *actual* life over a being where there is not consensus (in neither science nor philosophy) about whether at this point it was alive or merely the potential for life.

    3) I think a lot of the guilt women feel is because you think that is how you are *meant* to feel, the appropriate response to something ‘shameful’ you did. While you have said that you don’t believe what either of us did was murder, I have been told on more than one occasion that that is exactly what abortion is. I was also discriminated against on the basis of having had an abortion by my University, who “offered” me a year out to ‘come to terms with the abortion’ and when I said I neither wanted nor needed it, effectively kicked me out for the year anyway. I feel neither guilt nor shame, but they couldn’t accept that I didn’t, because that is how I ‘must’ feel. It creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy I think.

    4) I grew up Catholic but whatever my feeling now (my relationship with the church is complicated), Canon Law is clear: “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication (1398)”. Pretty judgy.

    5) Weirdly, it wasn’t so much a decision I made (or felt I was forced to make) as a moment of sudden and absolute clarity where I knew exactly what I had to do, and felt at peace afterward. I know that’s not everyone’s experience, and I don’t want to universalise my own, but neither should we universalise the woman agonising over what to do.

    6) I think the assumption that my anger comes from some sort of unresolved issue is offensive. I’m not projecting, or needing validation from Tara or anyone else- as I said in the original piece, I believe the decision I made was right, and I don’t need her to believe it- but there is a frightening amount of anti-abortion rhetoric at the moment and I worry that we’ll end up in a position like the US or worse, places in Latin America. I have friends who fell pregnant while travelling in countries where abortion is illegal, and saw the risks they took to get a termination. This is where this rhetoric leads.

    Ideally, abortions wouldn’t exist but while we live in a society where no contraception is 100% effective, and where women become pregnant through rape or coercion, and where even with all the miracles of modern science women still die needlessly, it needs to. Sorry this is rushed, I’m writing it on my phone in my lunchbreak, hopefully this clarifies some of my position
    xxx

  2. Charlotte, the information you have about the. Stage of development of your baby is incorrect. A baby can be seen on a scan from between 5 and 6 weeks (though the image would not have been very clear prior to internal scanning techniques). Although a baby is tiny at 7 weeks of pregnancy, we can now see much that shows an active human being at rest and at play in the womb. It may or may not be useful to you to look into this further if you want to understand why others hold pro-life views. And also why the church says a woman is excommunicated by the act of abortion – something that is meant to be a warning to her of the seriousness of what is taking place rather than a punishment. Every Catholic priest in the UK has been granted the ability to lift that excommunication in Confession and I hope you get to avail of that freedom sometime. God bless.

    1. I saw my ultrasound (for what it’s worth, it was an internal ultrasound. Highly invasive, wouldn’t recommend). Even the technician couldn’t find the foetus. Maybe their dates were wrong, as especially that early on, they’re more of a guesstimate but in any case, not detectable. And confessing means admitting guilt. I haven’t done anything wrong.

      1. Hi Charlotte, sorry this fell into my spam filters which I’ve just checked, so apologies for not publishing it sooner.

        Just to clear up the issue of abortion as murder – I do believe that abortion constitutes the killing of an unborn child or foetus if you prefer, but shouldn’t be given the label as murder, which is not only unnecessarily emotive but implies some sort cold-blooded deliberate uncaring attitude.

        If you do not accept that life begins at conception (which is a consensus opinion held amongst even pro-choice embryologists) then abortion does not constitute a deliberate killing, there is no intent to kill. It’s a generally unhelpful label, one which I don’t think I’ve ever heard from any of those in the pro-life movement whom I would respect.

        I’m afraid the Catholic church is a bit ‘judgey’ when it comes to abortion, because it violates the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. That’s not quite the same thing as judging the woman who has an abortion, but there isn’t any getting around the fact that yes, in order to lift the automatic ex-communication you would as you say, need to admit that you did something wrong in the eyes of the Church and receive absolution through the sacrament of reconciliation (Confession).

        I understand that you probably don’t want to hear that, but it’s not a condemnation or rejection of you as a person. I don’t want to go into further details unless of course you’d be open to hearing more, confession is really not an exercise in shaming or inducing guilt or revelling in someone’s humiliation, it’s about the penitent making peace with God.

        I’m really open to further dialogue either public or private if you would like to dig deeper in confidence.

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