Trigger Warning. This article contains graphic descriptions of illegal abortions.
15 years ago I had an abortion. It was in London where women have the right to choose – that is as long as two doctors agree with her choice. But what would have happened if just one of those doctors decided that it would have been better for me – someone they’ve just met – to continue with the pregnancy?
I was young so I may not have been strong nor savvy enough to find alternatives. Or too scared to take them forward. Coat hangers can easily be found, but to shove one up your vagina all the way into your uterus takes a brave – and desperate – woman or girl.
It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to work out what the world would be like without abortion. We women have been through it all before. But the vision is more frightening than anything else I can think of.
Backstreet abortions that consist of pumping the uterus full of soapy water, a la Vera Drake (which would often kill instantly) would be one scenario. The infamous (but never to be underestimated in its volume of use) coat hanger; many reputable gynaecologists such as Waldo Felding have stated that they have seen many women turn up to A&E with the hanger still wedged up their vaginal passage. Or, how about a pint and a half of turpentine? Or. throwing yourself down stairs to induce miscarriage? Some women may think that the trusty household hoover may do the trick. I mean, it cleans up everything else, so why not?
We would go back to a time when less reputable newspapers advertised ‘Cures for menstrual blockage’ as advertising revenue would overtake the moral high ground. A high ground where currently the Daily Mail condemns Josie Cunningham for wanting an abortion. These cures were poisonous, and sometime fatal. You would virtually have to kill the mother to destroy the foetus.
Backstreet abortions would be done without local anaesthetic on someone’s dirty kitchen table, with filthy utensils, in a dark room and by women who didn’t really care if they clumsily ripped through your womb.
One women I talked with spoke of waiting on a street corner in 1962. A van turns up, blindfolds and places her in the van where she is given a backstreet abortion and dropped somewhere in the middle of nowhere hours later, with no money or map to get home.
Removing legal abortion does not remove abortion. It never has done. It drives it underground where violent, life-threatening alternatives loiter for those desperate women and girls who don’t want to be pregnant. Abortion becomes a profitable business on the black market and prices out the most desperate and poor – minority groups.
A world without abortion would leave us like Brazil where one fifth of the one million women who have backstreet abortions each year go to hospital with botched procedures. Or Ireland, where Savita Halappanavar died whilst miscarrying her wanted pregnancy; despite that her life would have been saved from a simple abortion.
In January, the Irish Republic further criminalised abortion with 14 year jail term. In Northern Ireland, more than 1,000 women each year travel to have an abortion in other parts of the UK. I’m staggered that we feminists in the rest of the UK are largely unaware of the terrible restrictions Irish women face in their right to choose, a mere few hundred miles away.
It’s an appalling fact that women from Ireland are forced abroad to access a fundamental healthcare service that they should be able to obtain at home. It’s a sad fact that Ireland is a prime example of what the world looks like if abortion is illegal. A world of coat hangers and blood: where women are forced into continuing with unwanted pregnancies that they may be unable to afford or cope with.
Melanie is a NGO-worker, feminist & film-maker. Follow her on twitter @51percentorg
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