Kate had a medical abortion on the eve of Mother's Day 2016.
“For me the termination was an act of love for my other children and a reaffirmation of my love for my relationship,” she says, whispering into the phone so as not to wake her sleeping baby.
“If I hadn’t had an abortion my life would be over… I know I would have taken my own life and left many children without a mum.”
When Kate fell pregnant she was battling a then undiagnosed mental illness that she says was a “threat to her life”.
“I became incredibly low in my mood and became a threat to myself in terms of self-harm and suicide,” the now 38-year-old says. “It threatened the stability of my life and in particular the relationship I had with my partner.”
The contraception the couple was using had failed.
“Time kind of stood still when I held that pregnancy test in my hand,” she says. “It was an immediate decision [that] I would terminate.”
In Australia abortion drug RU486 can be taken up to nine weeks gestation, so Kate called her GP.
“I remember crying on the phone to the receptionist, begging for an appointment to get a prescription, but they just said ‘this is not the process you go through’,” she says. “It isn’t as easy as just going to a local pharmacy and getting something over the counter, there are so many logistical hurdles you have to go through, whether that is in terms of having the money or getting an appointment.”
Kate, who lives in the Australian Capital Territory, was referred to national not-for-profit reproductive health service Marie Stopes Australia, which provides the bulk of the nation's pregnancy termination services, especially in jurisdictions where there is little or no public provision of abortion.
Marie Stopes Australia estimates 58% of all patients are already mothers, and says women in their late 20s and early 30s are most likely to have abortions. For patients aged over 30, 74% have at least one child, and 27% have three or more children.
“I used to walk by the clinic every day where I would see mainly older men carrying rosary beads and praying out loud as people were accessing the building,” Kate says. “The signs were very graphic and I remember thinking how hard it must be for the women to walk past them and how brave they must have been to withstand that horrible torment from people who didn’t know their circumstances.”
The ACT introduced safe-access zones for abortion clinics in 2015, so Kate didn’t have to risk a run-in with picketers, but she was still concerned about her privacy.
“I didn’t want people to see me because there is so much shame around it,” she says. “It cost me all up $500 which was a lot even though I worked full-time.”
In the waiting room before her ultrasound Kate says there were women of different ages with appointments.
“What struck me was that we didn’t look like no-hopers, and much of the media reports that terminations are done by desperate people in terrible circumstances where they don’t have a choice, but it felt incredibly empowering looking around and seeing that I wasn’t alone,” she says.
Kate says no-one in the waiting room talked to each other.
After her abortion Kate’s GP encouraged her to seek psychological treatment and medication.
“I went on to have more kids within a matter of years and I did so knowing that the situation that I was bringing them into was stable and nurturing for human life.”
Holly fell pregnant while on the contraceptive pill.
“It was a year after I had my youngest daughter and I’d had a difficult pregnancy with her, so I knew I didn’t want another baby that quickly,” the 42-year-old tells BuzzFeed News. “My partner was very much in agreement, so that wasn’t an issue.”
RU486 was legalised in Australia in 2006 but was still not widely available in regional Victoria, where Holly was seeking an abortion in 2012.
She travelled across the border to New South Wales to have a surgical abortion at Albury’s Fertility Control Clinic. The state didn’t yet have safe-access zones around clinics so Holly, her partner and their one-year-old had to walk past protesters.
“I’m old enough and experienced enough that it wasn’t that distressing for me walking past them, but it is a small community and we know those protesters were taking photos of women walking in and out of the clinic at the time and that felt very invasive,” she says. “They had signs and little plastic foetuses.”
Holly believes the trope of a woman seeking an abortion being a “helpless teen who can’t make decisions on her own”, or a woman who “doesn’t want to mess up their perfect little lives with children”, only disempowers women.
“This stereotype of a woman who needs help with decision making in her healthcare infantilises women,” she says. “In reality these women are often good mothers who know exactly the emotional and financial cost of raising a child… they are actually valuing children and what they need.”
Women in their 30s having abortions can already have more than a decade of experience using contraception, Holly says.
“Over so many years of sex and relationships the likelihood of having an unwanted pregnancy increases and there’s no contraception that is 100% [effective] other than sterilisation.”
Holly says she felt relieved after her abortion.
“My primary concern was how I would manage my own health during another pregnancy and how much energy that would take away from my family and existing children.”
Tasmanian mother Thea was living in Hobart with her two-year-old son when she fell pregnant in 1999.
“I was 21 and single with a toddler in tow and I knew I didn’t have the capacity to give my existing child the life he deserved if I was to go ahead with the second pregnancy,” the now 41-year-old tells BuzzFeed News. “I couldn’t do it financially and the pressure it would have put on my support networks was too much.”
Thea spoke to a counsellor at her local hospital and was booked in for a surgical abortion the following week.
“I felt supported in my decision and the entire process was free under Medicare,” she says.
Thea feels disappointed that while she was able to access an abortion through a public hospital in the late-1990s, decades later Tasmanian women have very limited options to terminate a pregnancy.
The closure in January of the main provider of surgical abortion in the state, the Specialist Gynaecology Centre in Hobart, means most women have to travel interstate to access the procedure, at huge personal cost.
“It is fine to say people can travel or join waiting lists, but this excludes vulnerable people who then have to travel interstate away from their family and support networks,” Thea says.
People were “less judgemental” during her abortion than they were when she decided to continue her first pregnancy, aged 18.
“I felt a lot of pressure that I would be ruining my life, but I knew that I was ready to be a parent and with that came some deals I made with myself that my child would be a priority,” she says.
Victorian mother Angela fell pregnant in 2006 to a man she had only known for three weeks, when their contraception failed.
“I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone even though I was a 36-year-old woman with two kids already,” she tells BuzzFeed News. “My children are adults now and I still haven’t told them.”
Angela had recently left her children’s “controlling” father.
“I thought ‘I’m struggling enough as it is trying to pay a mortgage on a single income’,” she says. “It was tricky because the man [involved in the pregnancy] didn’t have kids so I felt quite guilty that I was making that choice. He was sad but he was respectful and very much fine with the decision.”
Angela’s GP referred her to Geelong Hospital for an ultrasound during which the sonographer congratulated her on the pregnancy.
“We didn’t have the 1800 My Options number back then so there was no information and I’m fairly educated and already had two babies through the health system, but I felt like I was in the hands of other people,” she says.
Before the surgery Angela sat in a room with five other women. “No-one looked at each other and no-one talked to each other… It just felt hush-hush,” she says.
Angela later had a child with the same man.
“When the timing was right it was great, but the first time it wasn’t right,” she says. “I’ve never regretted my choice or felt guilty about it, but there is a stigma so I can’t talk about it freely.”
In 2012, Brooke knew early on that she was pregnant. It was her third pregnancy.
“I had two kids already so I recognised it very quickly,” the 35-year-old tells BuzzFeed News. “I knew that to be the kind of parent that my two kids needed I couldn’t have any more kids.”
There were no RU486 prescribers, let alone surgical abortion providers, in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales where Brooke lives, so she asked a friend to mind her oldest child while her husband minded the youngest. She drove an hour to Canberra to get the drugs at a private clinic.
“If I could have just gone to a pharmacist I would have, so it was inconvenient and frustrating for me, but at the same time I felt quite lucky that it was only an hour away and I didn’t have to go interstate and stay overnight,” she says.
The pills, blood test and ultrasound cost $900.
“We had to dip into our savings because we had little kids and I wasn’t working, but I’m lucky that we had that money,” Brooke says.
She took the first pill, mifepristone, at the clinic and the second 48 hours later at home.
The staff at the clinic explained all the potential complications to Brooke and said if anything was to go wrong to drive back to Canberra to an emergency department.
“I said 'Actually that’s not my closest hospital', but they said they didn’t advise people to go to my closest hospital because it was a public hospital, but a Catholic one, and that really shocked me,” she says. “It is rare but there can be serious complications, so you think you have the right to expect healthcare when you need it.”
Clara’s mental health was dire after the birth of her first child. Friends and family encouraged her to “enjoy these magical moments” but Clara says having a newborn felt like “getting hit by a truck”.
“I now know I went through postnatal depression, but at the time I thought I was fine and I thought everything I was going through was normal,” the 34-year-old Sydney woman tells BuzzFeed News.
“Even though we planned on having two kids we shied away from trying again for a really long time because of my depression, but when [my daughter] was three-and-a-half we decided to try again.”
When Clara had a negative pregnancy test she says she felt relieved. The couple stopped trying but soon after Clara miscalculated her cycle and fell pregnant.
“As the weeks went by I got used to it and I thought ‘this is happening’ but then at 11 weeks they did a quick scan after our blood test,” she says.
The sonographer told Clara she was having twins, something that was missed at the six-week ultrasound. Clara burst into tears.
“It was like having a wanted and an unwanted pregnancy all wrapped up in one — I felt so lonely and I thought ‘there’s no way in hell I’m going to avoid having depression’,” she says.
Clara was told she would have monochorionic monoamniotic twins — identical twins that share one placenta and one amniotic sac — and was referred to a genetic counsellor.
“We never wanted three kids and I knew I would have depression, but I also wanted to know more about the medical risks because it would play a part in my decision,” Clara says.
“The specialist told me 1 in 10 women whose pregnancy looks like this at this stage won’t take home two babies at all, and the pregnancy gets riskier each week.”
She read widely about the risks involved in her pregnancy including the mortality and disability rates.
“It was the spontaneous foetal death stuff that scared me and when that happens there are all these risks to the co-twin, and I couldn’t fathom the idea of having two stillbirths,” she says. “I may have catastrophised it but at the same time these were real risks.”
At 13 weeks gestation — “it was the worst two weeks wait of my life” — Clara had a surgical abortion.
“I knew in my heart that it is what I wanted to do but emotionally it was really hard,” she says. “I only have so much time and energy and I knew it would be split between four people in a two-bedroom apartment and I would have been spread so thin and no-one was going to get enough, including myself.”
All women in this story have requested pseudonyms to protect their privacy.
Gina Rushton is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Gina Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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