In the seventies in England, a National Health doctor could recommend a woman for abortion within the first twelve weeks if he considered that she was at risk in some way, physically or mentally, due to the pregnancy. In effect, that meant that any woman who wanted an abortion had to make sure she saw a doctor who believed that it was bad for a woman’s health to have a child she didn’t want. Whether she was considered eligible for abortion, or not, was a personal decision on the part of the doctor: out of the hands of the pregnant woman, and in the hands of a professional who was usually male. A doctor who didn’t believe in a woman’s right to abortion could find an excuse to refuse her one without a second thought.
I got pregnant in 1975 when I was living in the north of England. Since my boyfriend wanted me to have the baby, he was spectacularly unhelpful. However, my local doctor was pro-abortion. Without an examination, he readily gave me a recommendation to see a surgeon he knew at a nearby clinic, assuring me that the process would be perfectly straightforward. His certainty relieved my anxiety.
I called the number he had given me. The appointment was made for three weeks ahead, which meant I would be nearly eleven weeks pregnant by the time I had an examination. Presumably I would have to wait at least another week after that for the operation. Wasn’t this cutting it a little close time-wise? My anxiety returned, and I called my local doctor, but he had left on vacation. I waited a nail-biting three weeks. Arriving at the clinic on time, I explained myself to an unsmiling nurse, changed into a white gown, and lay on my back with my feet in stirrups for fifteen minutes or more. The surgeon came in, glanced at me briefly, and read through notes on a clipboard. Flanked by two nurses, all of three of them equally grim, he examined me. Stepping back and stripping off his plastic gloves, he addressed me for the first time, looking down at me with an almost-sneer.
“In my opinion, you are already fourteen weeks pregnant. That is too late to perform an abortion. I run a pre-natal clinic every Friday. I’ll see you there.” Turning on his heel, he left the room.
I’d rather commit suicide than have my future dictated by a man like him. As I grim;y swung my feet out of the stirrups, and stood up, I silently swore that he would not dictate my future. I had one option left. It would cost me money, but at this point, being in debt seemed like the very least of any problems. Assuming that I was only eleven weeks pregnant, I got an emergency appointment with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in London. To my great relief, the counselor there was friendly and helpful, although doubtful about whether I could get into surgery in time, since the following week’s schedule was already at full capacity. I waited on tenterhooks, and after a few phone calls, she persuaded the clinic to accept an extra patient. I would happily have kissed that counselor’s feet. I was to go in for surgery when I was twelve weeks and a few days pregnant, by my calculations.
Since my boyfriend was taking me to the hospital, I left the directions in his hands. On the morning of the appointed day, I had a major row with him. It wasn’t a good start to a difficult day. Setting out to the clinic alone, I somehow found my way across London to the hospital, arriving breathless and sweating, only thirty minutes late. I sat in a room full of uptight women who were not only not talking to each other, but pretending not to see each other. One by one they were called out. After two long hours, the last woman disappeared through the door held open by a white-coated nurse, leaving me alone. By the time I’d sat there for another half hour, convinced they had forgotten about me, I was practically hyperventilating, about as uptight as it’s possible to be and still remain conscious. It wasn’t a good physical state to be in for any kind of operation. The door finally opened again, and the nurse called me through. I was never more relieved to lie down on a gurney, letting myself sink gratefully into the oblivion brought on by the prick of a needle.
In those days, they gave you a general anesthetic and kept you in overnight, even though it was a simple procedure. I woke slowly out of that deep, drug-induced sleep. I could hear someone groaning and I was thinking, that person must really be in pain, when I realized it was myself I was listening to. A kind nurse came and changed the blood-soaked bedclothes. I really didn’t mind. At least I wasn’t pregnant any more. I couldn’t have expected the operation to be painless when my body was in such a severe state of tension. In the morning, after a night’s rest, I was fine. But I never ceased to resent the lesson in powerlessness that the whole horrible process provided.
Four years later, after I came out as a lesbian, I heard through the grapevine that an underground abortion group was operating in my area. Although I myself was no longer at risk for pregnancy, I wanted to know that no one would ever have to go through what I did. I became an active member of the group. We were all feminists who saw this as a way of taking our power back from the professional elite. The woman who led the group had learned her skills from a sympathetic doctor in Ireland, a Catholic country where abortion was illegal. Our back-up was a supportive doctor who took in any of our clients who needed medical aftercare, and supplied us with antibiotics or other drugs, no questions asked. To this day, I think of those doctors as some of the greatest unsung heroes. Yes, we were risking a prison sentence, but they were also risking their livelihoods, and they had no guarantee that we would not turn them in. We knew their names and how to contact them; they knew nothing about us.
An early abortion is a straightforward procedure that can be done quite safely without specialized equipment. We practiced on each other, learning how to assess someone’s state of pregnancy and doing simple vacuum aspirations. I stayed in the group for around eighteen months, during which time we performed probably twelve abortions. They were done in bedrooms, living rooms, attics: any clean space where we would not be disturbed. Wanting to make sure we couldn’t be traced by the authorities, we rarely used the same space twice. We were very strict about cleanliness, and considering the germs that are inevitably floating around in every hospital, our procedures were probably less prone to infection than the abortion clinics. We were certainly more personable in our approach to our clients.
It was a great relief to find that, no matter what laws are made by governments that pretend to know what’s best for us, we can, after all, be in charge of our own bodies, We have the power to take care of things ourselves, and when we have to, we will step into that power.