In Sunday School, we were taught that all sins are equal. If that were true, God would be as upset with me for saying “oh my god” as I read the positive pregnancy test, as he would for my decision to terminate my pregnancy at the age of 28, for the fact that the baby was a product of adultery, and for the fact that I lied to my parents about it. I broke four of the Ten Commandments in one blow when I had an abortion two years ago. I got up early the following morning, which was a Sunday, went to church, kneeled on the pew – still in pain and wearing ultra-thick sanitary pads to catch the leftover “foetal tissue” – and asked for forgiveness. I don’t think it worked.
Two years on, every time I see a news post about women being imprisoned for home-terminations in Ireland, in South America, in the Middle East, it stings. And every time I see a Facebook post from a religious relative about how terrible women who get abortions are, I feel conflicted. Because I’m a feminist, and a Catholic.
I was brought up in an Irish Catholic community in London and my parents are very religious, but they still drink when they want to, and they know I’ve been having sex since I was 16 – which they were upset about at the time but it’s fine now. They are totally sympathetic to abortions under extenuating circumstances, and would march for these rights themselves – if they were isolated cases. They would vehemently disagree, for example, with an Irish teenage girl in our family being forced to have a baby that she couldn’t cope with, or a woman whose health was in danger being forced to continue with the pregnancy, or a woman who was a victim of sexual assault being forced to carry that baby, or a woman not being allowed a termination after finding out during a scan that her baby had a severe disability. What they would object to, is me: a financially stable, healthy, 28-year-old woman who got wasted, slept with someone they shouldn’t have without protection, and had an abortion. And I understand that.
A few weeks after my abortion, in a random conversation about an Irish news story on the subject, my mum said she thought women who simply “choose” to have abortions because they just don’t feel like having the baby are “murderers”. I had to fight back the tears and dig my nails into my hand so as not to give the game away.
None of the energy that I took with me to march for women’s rights on International Women’s Day was present in that waiting room
Maybe you’re thinking my parents’ views are old-fashioned, anti-feminist or ultra-conservative, but the narratives around abortion in the liberal media often follow suit. I have great respect for celebrities who speak publicly about their abortions in order to progress the public perception, but I can’t help but notice how they usually put in a caveat like, “I was a student/ I had no money/ I had no support/ I was so young”. The only two celebrities I can remember talking about their abortions without caveats are the world-famous artists Marina Abramović and Tracey Emin. Abramović told Tagesspiegel newspaper in 2016, “I had three abortions because I was certain that it would be a disaster for my work.” And Emin wrote this in 2009 for The Independent:
“I would have been so much happier had I not had the abortions, but I truly believe that I would have been so much unhappier if I had had the children. These are the kinds of thoughts that fill my mind before daylight comes. I'd never have believed that I would say or think this, but as I get older, it's becoming more and more obvious that my children are hanging on the Tate Britain walls. I felt that my abortions had somehow been a Faustian pact, and in return for my children's souls, I had been given my success.”
Both women have been heavily criticised for these statements, which are, truly, statements of choice. Growing up, Abramović spent a lot of time in churches with her Orthodox grandmother. Emin says that although she isn’t a Catholic, she has “a profound belief in the soul.”
I went to the abortion clinic three times over the course of two weeks – first to check I was actually pregnant, second to get the abortion pills and begin the procedure, and third for a follow-up appointment. Each time, I went alone, despite my friends offering to join me, because at the time I felt like I shouldn’t receive any sympathy. It came as a surprise that almost half the women in the waiting room each time were wearing hijab, and these women were always alone, too. Hijab or not, pretty much everyone was looking down, at their phones, at a newspaper, at anything that wouldn’t lead to eye contact with another person.
None of the energy that I took with me to march for women’s rights on International Women’s Day was present in that waiting room, or at any part of the abortion process. I shouted for a woman’s right to choose in the street with pink signs, and still, I felt nothing but shame in that room.
In my first visit, during my scan, the woman showed me the monitor and I saw the foetus moving in my womb. I really wish she hadn’t done that. She even asked if I would like to keep the photo of the scan – the kind of thing happy pregnant people put on their fridge, text their boyfriend and post on Facebook. The abortion itself was complicated, too; first, I saw part of the foetus in the toilet at home, which I found very traumatic, and which I was later told isn’t the norm. Second, the pain and heavy bleeding went on for over a month, and every time I went to the toilet at work or had a bath in the evening, a bit more of my baby would come out, which I was told happened only to a small number of women. At the follow up appointment, I had another scan, where she showed me my emptied out womb. It all felt like penance.
There was a pro-life activist outside the clinic on my third visit, a man of about 50 with a sign that said “GIVE YOUR BABY A CHANCE”. I already hadn’t and I hated him – this man coming to torment women and throw salt on their wounds.
In 2015, Pope Francis put out a statement saying that all Catholic priests are now officially endowed with the power to forgive women on behalf of God and the church for having abortions. Though he is an Argentinian man, where abortion is illegal and punishable, he has officially given consent for women all over the world to be forgiven for their sins. Which should please me, except it doesn’t, because I suspect (not being able to confirm it with him) that, like my parents, what he actually means is that abortion under awful circumstances is okay, not when it is really a choice. Pope Francis was quoted in the BBC article on the matter as saying that many women have abortions because “they believe they have no other option”. In the same article, the journalist pulled up old comments from the Pope where he called abortion part of a “throw-away culture”: “Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as unnecessary.”
Did I throw away my baby? The way I throw away mouldy cheese or pub receipts? There was the moment where I saw it in the toilet and I flushed it – did it end up in the same place as the mouldy cheese? Does the fact that I’m so disturbed by it mean I’m eligible to be forgiven? Is Tracey Emin eligible to be forgiven for the disturbing art she’s created around it? Or does the fact that we don’t regret it mean that we can’t be forgiven? In the Catholic faith, you can’t confess your sins unless you first repent, that’s part of the deal. I don’t think I’ll ever have another abortion, at least not by choice, but am I repentant? “Repentance is the activity of reviewing one's actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs.” I don’t feel regret, per se. And because of that, I don’t feel able to confess. I still think it was the right choice for me then, and now.
All sins can’t be equal, because I don’t feel bad for saying "oh my god". I do feel bad for committing adultery and lying to my parents but still, I can write those things off with caveats like: I was young, I was stupid. I can’t write off the abortion though, it is written on my soul and I’ll take it to my grave, where, in my Catholic-conditioned mind, God will say, "Your name’s not on the door, remember when you killed an innocent human because you were drunk and full of yourself? Yes. Now go to hell. Bye forever."
I know I did the right thing for me at the time but, just because I feel comfortable with the outcome, it doesn’t mean I don’t feel profoundly guilty, like I deserve the pain I went through, and fear that my decision will come back to haunt me in later years when I am ready for a child. That part, I feel sure, is down to Catholic guilt: I fear that I’ll never be able to conceive again, and that if I do, something will go horribly wrong later down the line.
I still sometimes, privately, look at my iPhone calendar and work out how old my baby would be now. I also dream about it, not often, but vividly. I dream I had the baby and she’s this beautiful little thing who I love, and I’m so happy, even though I’m not with the father. In my dreams I’m so pleased I had the baby; in reality, I’m so relieved I didn’t. Sometimes when I’m praying (which I do most evenings before I go to sleep) I wonder if that baby is in heaven, and I wonder if I’ll get to meet it in heaven – if they let me in – and I wonder whether I’ll be allowed to be a mum to it in God’s house, and tell it how sorry I am. I don’t want to say sorry to a priest, or to my parents, or to feminists, or to Catholics. I want to say sorry to my baby. Does that count, God?