The stigma surrounding a woman’s choice

When I was 20, I had an abortion. I was living on my own for the first time. I was given bad advice by a walk-in clinic about my birth control, and a few weeks later I was peeing on a stick.

After a series of long talks with my partner, my mother, my friends, and a counsellor, I booked my appointment. My mom drove me to the clinic where I cried in the waiting room, surrounded by silent women. I was taken to a room with a counsellor. I told her that though I was crying, this was my decision and I wanted to continue. She nodded and told me, “I know this sucks,” and gave me a hug. We spoke until I calmed down, after which I changed into a gown. Another nurse took me to the table. She asked me about the stories of each of my tattoos, asking me to expand on each piece as the procedure started. She held my hand the entire time. A few moments later it was over and I was guided to recovery.

My abortion experience is rare, because it happened in a clean, safe and non-discriminatory environment. The women in the clinic were supportive and understanding. I did not have to cross a picket line of protestors shouting abuse. I did not have to cross province lines, or borders. I felt human. To this day I owe each of those women a debt of gratitude, for making a sad day somewhat bearable.

A few days after my procedure, I thought I had developed a complication. The clinic I had gone to was closed for the night, so I Googled a women’s healthcare line and I called the number. A polite nurse asked me a few questions about my general health, and then asked what she could help me with. I described what had happened, expecting the same flood of kindness and empathy I had experienced at the clinic recently—expecting at the bare minimum professionalism. After a few moments of silence she politely told me that she did not help murderers and hung up.

Murderers.

I held the phone to my cheek and listened to the dial tone as I sat there, transfixed. I had been denied help. I had been shut down. Branded. Murderer. I wondered if others that I passed on the street could see the stain of it on me.

I live in Toronto. There were other places to call. I got the help I needed. I was lucky. Many other stories would have taken dramatically different courses at that point.

I’m telling you this story because of the global gag rule, and because reproductive rights are under serious threat. I’m telling you this because as far as accessibility goes, Canada is not doing much better. I’m telling you this because, due to Trump’s executive order denying financial aid to reproductive health organizations that even discuss abortion, women are going to suffer and die. Many, many women.

Being pro-choice does not equate to being pro-abortion. I mourned my abortion, mourned the choice I had to make, but that does not equate regret. It took me time to accept this. For a long time I clung to shame. I wrapped myself in guilt and let it weigh my steps. Murderer. I let people tell me how I was supposed to feel. I let shame silence me. I am pro-choice, for now and for always, but I carried a grief I felt I wasn’t allowed to have. I had made a choice, a tough one, a complex one but more importantly a personal one. My choice.

In the months following my abortion it was a struggle to talk about it. Everything in my body pushed me to silence. If it was spoken about to a select few friends, they were brief conversations, moments of relief that were immediately followed by guilt. Murderer. I once cried to my partner about how I could still feel that stain on me, I could still feel that nurse rejecting me. It was only after I read about women speaking openly about their experiences that something shifted. I began to refuse the label I had been allotted by a woman who had never seen my face, never spoken to me beyond a five-minute phone call. I spoke openly about my experiences, and the more I spoke, the more other women shared with me too. I cannot tell you how many women have heard me speak openly about my abortion experience and confided in me about their own experiences. Sometimes that’s all it takes. This sharing of experiences is how we create communities, it is how we heal. It is also how we mobilize, how we sway policy, and how we beget change.

When you criminalize abortion, when you restrict access to services for women, you don’t stop abortion. You stop safe abortions. You stop access to vital educational services that diminish the rates of abortion, like sexual education and contraceptive access. This isn’t just my opinion. The ramifications of the global gag rule are well known, ironically leading to an increase in abortions, safe or unsafe, as contraceptive dispersing is disrupted and often halted. Over the next four years of a Trump presidency with the gag rule in place, Marie Stopes International (an international reproductive healthcare organization) estimates it will cause 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.2 million abortions, 2.1 million unsafe abortions, and 21,700 maternal deaths.

The gag ruling is an international problem. Abortion access in Canada is a massive issue, with some provinces only having one clinic (or in the case of PEI, no clinics). Additionally, though clinics may exist within urban centres, rural communities find access much more trying, with some women having to take time off work and travel immense distances to receive help, often at great financial strain.

Unplanned pregnancy can be terrifying, especially for young women who feel trapped and isolated by their lack of resources. It’s also a time of vulnerability, where women need support and open conversations about all their options. The goal of our campus at UTM is to be a public, safe space for all of its students and a place free of judgement or discrimination. Seeing signs on campus carrying photos of mangled fetuses (keep in mind that over 90 percent of abortions occur before 12 weeks), I can only feel empathy for the women at UTM who are grappling a difficult and personal choice while faced with blatant, shame-ridden propaganda. I’ve been there. It’s hard to believe that an organization like UTM Students for Life, who claims to come to women with understanding and love, instead attempts to shame young women into making the choice this group has decided is right for them.

If, like me, you feel that accessible reproductive health is a necessity, there are a few avenues available to you. First and foremost—listen. Listen to the women around you. Listen to those who need support and offer it willingly. Reserve your judgements. Equally as important: be loud. Contact your local law and policy-makers and question them on their allocations of funding. Ask your policy makers why Mifegymiso, the abortion drug, is only available in three clinics across Canada, despite being on the World Health Organization’s “List of Essential Medicines.” If you have funds at your disposal, consider making a donation to Planned Parenthood—they need your support now more than ever. Support your student union as they face repercussions for refusing to allow a student society to bully women on campus and make them feel like their choices make them somehow less than. If the past few months have been any indicator, we’re going to need all the love and empathy we can get.

Erin Foley
Fourth-year
English major