A pregnancy test revealed my worst fear

FORTY years after abortion was legalised in England, the operations have reached record levels. In the first of a two-part series, Ella Pickover investigates an issue which is often too private to talk about, and always too sensitive to ignore.

FORTY years after abortion was legalised in England, the operations have reached record levels.

In the first of a two-part series, ELLA PICKOVER investigates an issue which is often too private to talk about, and always too sensitive to ignore.

WHEN 20-year-old Susan Smith found out she was pregnant she was distraught and knew the decision she would have to face.

She said: “A pregnancy test confirmed my worst fears. I was completely horrified - I sat on the floor next to the toilet and cried for hours.”

She said: “I started thinking about how everything in my life would change if I had a baby, and the changes weren't ones that I was prepared to take.”

The veterinary nurse from Ipswich knew her family would be shocked and upset. She said: “I thought that my parents would go mental - my mum is a really devout Catholic. My sister is a nurse and when mum found out that she was distributing the morning after pill she didn't speak to her for a week. I couldn't cope with the responsibility of a child by myself so I decided what I was going to do.”

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In a heartwrenching decision, Susan resolved to terminate her pregnancy, which is a choice she still sticks by today.

She said: “My boyfriend and I had a very turbulent relationship, we were always on and off - it wouldn't have been fair to bring up a child in that environment. He was really supportive and said I had the choice either way but I knew he wasn't ready either.”

She added: “It only took about a week after I made up my mind for me to have the procedure.

“Once I had the abortion the long-term problem was gone but I felt terrible - I was so ashamed of myself.”

Today her case is among the statistics which both pro-life activists and pro-choice campaigners use in vigorous debate.

Abortion was legalised in the UK-apart from Northern Ireland - in 1967 and 40 years on still causes controversy. The debate asks whether it can be morally right to abort a pregnancy before normal childbirth.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that at least one-third of British women will have an abortion by the age of 45.

People make up their minds based on ethical, moral, philosophical, biological and legal issues, mainly dividing into pro-life and pro-choice groups. The arguments centre on: Should the foetus receive a fundamental right to life? Or does a woman have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy?

Some societies ban abortion almost completely, where others only allow it in certain cases, mostly as a reflection of the dominant religious beliefs in different countries.

Abortion is a broad term which covers a number of factors including miscarriages, failure of the morning after pill, and medical and surgical procedures.

Felixstowe woman Abby Golding, 19, was only 14 when she had an abortion.

She said: “I was trying put on a pair of my favourite trousers and I couldn't fit in - I knew it was time to take a pregnancy test. I already had an inkling that I might be pregnant and if I was then I already knew what to do.

“I felt like I was too young - I wouldn't be able to cope with the responsibility and I wasn't financially stable - there wasn't really any question of keeping it.”

The man who had got Abby pregnant was dismissive, as soon as he found out she was expecting.

She said: “As soon as I said the words 'I'm pregnant' he said 'as far as you and your baby are concerned I don't even exist.' So I didn't even tell him I wasn't going to keep it.”

All decisions and consultations with healthcare staff are confidential - no matter how old the patient. Girls under 16 have the right to have an abortion without telling their parents but Abby decided to get her mother involved.

She said: “Mum was great, she sorted everything out and told the school I'd be away for a while.

“The most disturbing thing about the whole ordeal was just before they performed the operation they showed me the baby in my stomach on a computer screen and asked me if I definitely wanted to go through with it.

“I felt queasy - I've spoken to friends who have had abortions since and they weren't asked to do this.

“The situation was difficult enough anyway. I was so lucky my mum was there just to reassure me - if not I probably would have an eight-year-old child now.

“Afterwards I stayed at home for a couple of weeks and mum took the time off work - the main thing I felt was relief. I did feel a little guilty but I know I did the right thing.”

Abortion is legal in the UK up to the 24th week of pregnancy. However there is no time limit if there could be a risk to the woman's life or if there are extreme foetal abnormalities.

Two doctors must give their consent to the abortion prior to the procedure on the grounds that to continue with a pregnancy would present risk to the mental or physical well-being of the woman.

After some women have terminated their pregnancies they may have consistent and repeated nightmares related to abortion, intense feelings of guilt and lower self esteem.

These can lead to clinical depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviour, yet some patients show no psychological difference in levels of stress or anxiety.

After Susan had her abortion, she felt ill and stayed in bed for a week

She said: “I just watched constant daytime television and every time there was even mention of a child I'd hold my stomach as if I was still pregnant and nurturing a child - it was awful. I was offered a free counselling session but I refused it - I just didn't want to talk to anyone about it.

Susan withdrew herself from her friends almost immediately after the abortion, she stopped going out in evenings and became a quieter and more subdued version of herself.

After a time she and her boyfriend split up. “I don't blame him at all, he was so supportive through the whole thing,” she said.

“I was so emotional - I just couldn't handle day to day things any more.”

She added: “Finally I told one of my closest friends. The worst decision I could have made was going through it alone. She told my other friends and my parents and everyone was so supportive. I just wish I'd spoken to them sooner.”

Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees.

Do you think abortions should be banned? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

Read part two tomorrow - A dad's story

· 46m abortions are performed worldwide every year.

· 19m are illegal and unsafe “back-alley abortions” in developing countries.

· 68,000 women die worldwide each year as a result of having an unsafe abortion.

· 81 per cent of people in the Czech Republic approve of abortions - the highest rate of support in Europe. Only 48 per cent of people in Poland agree with terminations of pregnancies - the lowest rate in Europe as 96 per cent of the Polish population are Roman Catholic.

· 33 per cent of British women have had an abortion.

· Five deaths have occurred, as a direct result of surgical complications during abortions from 2004 to 2007.

Source: The World Health Organisation, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and polls.

Last month the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) which provides abortions on behalf of the NHS, joined forces with the British Medical Association (BMA) to try to change UK legislation on abortion. UK law has now been amended so that abortion under 14 weeks should be treated in the same way as other patient consent treatments - meaning that women wishing to have abortions under 14 weeks should be allowed to do so without having consent from two doctors.

BPAS chief executive Ann Furdi says the law which legalised abortion 40 years ago is outdated. She said: “Abortion is still regulated by the 1967 Abortion Act. The social and medical landscape was very different then. The 1967 Abortion Act was a much-needed provision in its day , but is widely seen as no longer appropriate to modern ethical and clinical practice.

Ms Furdi added: “There is no medical or public interest in retaining unnecessary legal obstacles for doctors and their patients.”

The ProLife Alliance is the main anti-abortion group in the UK and lobbies Parliament on behalf of their members. Spokeswoman Julia Millington said: “We would like to see the medical profession giving greater consideration, not to the politics of abortion, but to the medical and psychological impact on women.

“The Hippocratic Oath - the oath which still swears doctors into medical practice today - originally forbade doctors to terminate pregnancies. And now the BMA has voted in favour of liberalisation of the abortion law without medical and public opinion.”

The Roman Catholic Church believes abortion is morally wrong, since the 16th century having an abortion has led to automatic excommunication. However, not all Catholics agree with the Vatican line - agreeing that in extreme circumstances abortion should be permitted. Some priests feel they should counsel their parishioners, but some are still outwardly against abortion such as Nottingham's Friar David Cain who believes women know the act of abortion is the killing of an innocent, unborn child.

He said: “We live in a country that has killed more than five million of its own inhabitants by abortion.

“We should not ignore the application of biblical themes.

“Though we do not condone abortion, through his Church, Christ offers forgiveness and healing - we will always offer counselling for women who have gone through this physically and psychologically traumatic time.”

Abortion Rights director Anne Quesney said she was delighted about the new changes made by the BMA and BPAS.

She said: “This year we celebrate 40 years of safe, legal abortion in Britain and thousands of women's lives saved but legislation continues to be among the most restrictive in Europe and the time has come for that to change.”

Professor Philip Cowley, of the University of Nottingham, is an expert in abortion - particularly within the context of British politics.

He says abortion is obviously a sensitive topic and when a bill of legislation to do with it passes through the House of Commons MPs are not required to vote on party lines but can vote according to their morals. He said: “The subject of abortion is a perennial topic of debate within the Commons there were 15 attempts to reform abortion law between 1969 and 1987.

“I hope these new recommendations from the BMA and BPAS will be taken into account.

“The legislation is old-fashioned and should move according to societal need.”