In most European countries, abortion is legal and yet people still have to jump through hoops to end unwanted pregnancies. Laws aren’t enough: as long as abortion is treated like a dirty little secret, reproductive rights will be in danger.
Gynaecologist Michael Spandau has wanted to retire for three years, but he doesn’t want to abandon his patients. The 70-year-old is the only doctor who performs abortions in Eastern Bavaria, a Catholic and conservative region of Southern Germany. The number of doctors that do abortions has dropped by a steep 40% in 15 years in the country, as medical professionals have come under pressure, not for performing the procedure but for providing women with information about it. “Advertising abortion” remains illegal in Germany, and two gynecologists are even facing jail time after they listed “abortion — surgical or medicinal” in a list of the outpatient surgeries provided in their clinic.
This is just one of the ways in which the taboo around abortion prevents women’s access to safe terminations in Europe, even in countries where the procedure itself is legal.
Abortions are shockingly absent from popular culture considering how frequent they are: in the US, the UK and France, one in three women has an abortion in the course of their lifetime. Yet I have to rack my brains — and Google’s brains — to think of any references to abortion in films or TV series. There was that scene in Juno where she decided not to have an abortion, after realising her fetus had fingernails. There was the time in Sex-and-the-City where Carrie, asked by Miranda how long it took for her to feel back to normal from the abortion she had 13 years prior, responded with, “Any day now.” More recently, background characters have had them in TV shows. Girls. Crazy ex-girlfriend. The message is clear: abortion is something that happens to secondary characters, not to you. And if it does, you either decide against or regret it for life.
With such little talk about abortion it is easy to spread disinformation. In 2016, I reported on the campaign led by anti-abortion groups in France to convince women not to have abortions by using guilt and fear tactics. They had paid for sponsored sites on Google so that the first result when you searched for abortion in French was the website IVG.net, a website covered in photos of crying women, with pseudo-scientific studies showing the negative effects of abortion and testimonials from women talking about how much they regretted their abortion. It was accompanied by a telephone hotline, supposedly to provide information about how to go about getting a termination. When you called, all they did was try and talk you out of it.
The truth is, as long as abortion is treated like a dirty secret, it’s easy for anti-abortion groups to impose their version of reality, and treat abortion as a traumatic experience even though studies show it is not. Researchers followed nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions in the US for five years and found that those who had the procedure did not experience more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or dissatisfaction with life than those who were denied it, according to a 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry. And yet the negative psychological and emotional effects of abortion are still held up as arguments against the procedure by anti-choice activists. Since women that have had abortions are forced into silence, there is no voice to contradict them, and women wind up feeling like regret is the only socially acceptable emotion after abortion. A close friend of mine, Annie, confided in me that she had felt guilty for not feeling guilty after her abortion. Everyone you tell about it talks to you with pity. “I actually felt fine, relieved mainly, and so that made me think there was something wrong with me,” she said. “I feel like society has authorised abortions on condition that you feel terrible about them.”
When abortion is taboo, and when women face pressure both to shut up and feel bad about their abortions, it makes it harder not to live it as a traumatic experience. This is a barrier to safe access to abortion, because “safe” should mean safe for mental, and not just physical, health. Several women I spoke to who had fallen on the IVG.net site describing the terrible and lifelong effects of abortion said to me clearly: what they were traumatised by wasn’t the abortion, it was the experience of coming across the manipulative site when already in a position of doubt.
The fact that the question of abortion is only ever addressed as a political issue, rather than an experience that real women actually go through, also means women that did suffer from their abortions feel pressured to not discuss their feelings about it in case they be used against them. A close friend of mine, Jeanne, explained to me how she always feels guilty expressing sadness about her own abortion because she feels like she is feeding into anti-choice rhetoric. “I feel like I can’t say I regret it, because that would mean all women should regret it. My very emotions have been recuperated by anti-abortion groups.”
Providing access to abortion isn’t just about drafting laws. It’s about breaking taboos and starting conversations.
And across Europe, women have started doing so. In Ireland, ahead of the referendum on abortion earlier this year, the Facebook page “In her shoes” played an important part in raising awareness about the importance of safe access to abortion. Thousands of women described their nerve-racking trips to the UK or attempts to do DIY abortions at home.
Meanwhile, in France, Clara Lilax turned to Instagram to tell her abortion story, step by step. Finding out she was pregnant. Ultrasounds, blood tests. The doctor that said “congratulations” as she stuffed a condom wrapped probe up her vagina. Joking around with her friend and roommate, Maxim. “I want to talk about it and I want to laugh about it. Otherwise I’m afraid I won’t register what’s happening.” Watching the little ball of blood fall into the toilet after taking abortion pills. Texting Maxim, “I feel as empty as my uterus”. It was sad and funny and real, and it spoke to women that had gone through the same experience. One that is as frequent as it is unheard of. Commenting on one of her posts, one Instagram user wrote: “thank you for telling your story … our story.”