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Safe, legal, and stigmatised?

In March 2015 my mum announced she was pregnant with her 5th child. We were all so excited. I was 18 at the time, with my siblings being; 17, 15 and 4. My mum had wanted another baby for about 2 years, she finally persuaded my dad and they fell pregnant 6 months later. At 12 weeks my parents were told something was not right. The doctors couldn't say what it was exactly at this point, but they knew it was a chromosomal disorder. At this point they offered my parents combined screening, which tests for Downs Syndrome, Edwards Syndrome and Patau's Syndrome.

The results came back after the bank holiday weekend and we were told that our precious baby had Edwards Syndrome, also known as Trisomy 18. This is a genetic disorder in which the 18 chromosome is tripled. It is the second most common foetal anomaly after Trisomy 21 (Downs Syndrome). Babies born with Edwards Syndrome are unlikely to make it through their first year of life, with even less chance of reaching adulthood. And that’s if they made it through the pregnancy.

My mum described this as a bomb. Inside her body. One which could go off at any minute.

On 5th June 2015, my mum gave birth to Daisy Amelia by induced miscarriage. My parents chose to end Daisy's life on that day, instead of allowing everyone to suffer more. It was the hardest thing for all of us I imagine. Daisy is very loved and remembered in our family, she is still my sister.Since then my parents had another little girl, Bonnie. Completely healthy. She has lit up all of our lives, and she will continue to do so.

Daisy has taught me a lot. She has taught me that you can never expect or plan life. But that you must be grateful for good. I like remembering Daisy by talking and writing about her. It means she will always live on, even if she is not here physically.

But it is more than that. Daisy has taught me that baby loss is not black and white. It is not just miscarriage or stillbirth. It is also abortion. Baby loss is difficult, it doesn't matter which way that loss comes about. It is still loss.

After losing Daisy I have done a lot of research and reading surrounding baby loss, pregnancy and abortion. During my final year at university I chose to write my dissertation on abortion stigma within the UK. I have always been pro-choice, before and after Daisy. I don’t believe it’s my place to tell anyone they should or shouldn’t have a termination. I don’t have to live their life so it’s not my decision. I don’t believe anyone is ‘pro-abortion’ but I do believe in the fact that sometimes, a lot of the time, abortion is the right option for an individual. And it is up to that individual to decide that.

The 1967 Abortion Act allows women within the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) to terminate a pregnancy once it has been approved by 2 doctors, on health grounds, before 24 weeks. Beyond 24 weeks in extreme or life-threatening situations. This law around abortion, not only creates a lot of stigma for individuals, but is also very constricting. This is where I would place ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ effect. We are convincing ourselves that abortion is morally correct when it occurs through this procedure, rather than allowing the act of abortion to just be okay. The Abortion Act has been in place now for over 50 years, and we still can’t get to a point of just allowing it. There has to be some restrictions, right? Maybe, yeah. But what we have right now is too restricting.

Firstly, the fact that 2 doctors have to approve an abortion is slightly crazy. Our NHS is pushed to the limit, so why are we making more work for ourselves? Nurses and sexual health practitioners could approve a termination. They are medical professionals who would see over other procedures, so why aren’t they being use in the case of abortion. It doesn’t make sense. Our doctors and GPs are stretched to the max. Additionally, when we ‘allow’ pregnancies to be terminated due to health reasons it is adding to the stigma and developing the idea that abortion is only okay under certain circumstances. By law, women are not allowed abortions for their own personal reasons. It has to come down to their health. Which sounds very restraining, but in fact it just doesn’t work. What we often see is not women being declined, but women being told that if they were to carry on with the pregnancy their mental health would deteriorate. So in practise we are considering all reasons for abortion, but then we have to dull them down to health. Which is ridiculous. We are ignoring and stigmatising women by doing this. We are telling women that their reason is not enough because it doesn’t tick a box. Why do we not think abortion is correct unless it impacts our health?

One big issue I have with the current abortion legislation and also the arguments to decriminalise abortion, is the time frame. We are currently sat at 24 weeks. Regardless of your personal views, life in some way begins at 24 weeks. Is the turning point where the foetus becomes more than just cells? Is this the point at which it can feel? It’s the point of viability, meaning that, with a lot of support, a foetus could survive at this point. That’s why its there. My issue is that 24 weeks is a number, yes there is a lot of research supporting that number, but that’s all it is. To me, there is not a lot of development between 23 weeks and 6 days to 24 weeks and 1 day. It’s there so we have a cut-off point, because there has to be one. Right? There is something taboo and uncomfortable with ‘late term’ abortions. People should know whether they want a baby or not, right? That’s idealistic and would be great, but it’s not life. Life is unexpected and I don’t think it’s right to hold people to a fantasy world. However, I do also see the value and importance of pregnancy and foetal life. As I mentioned earlier, the loss of my baby sister Daisy has really impacted my opinions. It has made me value life in ways I never thought I would. I do feel that the importance of a foetus develops as it does. Therefore, I agree that a pregnancy at 6 weeks can be very different to one at 26 weeks.

But I trust women.

Late term, whatever that is, abortions do not happen as much as we are told they do. Women do not want to terminate pregnancies at 22 weeks, if they could’ve done it at 7 weeks. No one wants abortion, no one, but its needed. I think the 24 week limit makes logical sense, but I think it is degrading and critical of women. I also feel that it is unfair. It ignores a huge chunk of families. Families who feel love when they think about their pregnancies, but also know that abortion is the only route. Not all abortions are wanted, sometimes the pregnancies are wanted. The time frame that the law provides means that terminations, or any baby loss, that happen before 24 weeks don’t count. They are not considered viable, and therefore do not get a birth or death certificate. Again, what is the difference between a foetus at 23 weeks and 6 days to one at 24 weeks and 1 day. Not a lot. But that foetus, born after 24 weeks, is real, in the eyes of the law anyway. It was here and therefore it died here. Any baby loss, whether it be planned or spontaneous, that occurs before 24 weeks is apparently not ‘alive enough’ to qualify for a birth certificate. It didn’t happen. While I understand, to some extent, why the limit is there, I think it is punishing a lot of people. I would like to see people being asked if they wanted certificates and offered them if so. But I know this would blur the line between what is or isn’t ‘alive’. Quite honestly, I’m not sure how I would want this to be tackled. It’s a slippery slope, and I think the pro-choice movement have enough on their hands without throwing this in. But I think it’s important, because people are important and what they want or potentially need in situations like this, could be life changing. Knowing that your child was enough for this world, legally, could be everything.

Another side to the abortion argument, and the 24-week limit, is foetal anomaly. Obviously, I have a personal experience with this so my views are going to be impacted by that, but I do try to remain very open minded. When I completed my dissertation surrounding abortion I found that foetal anomaly was something which was very regularly spoken about, on both sides of the argument. As a society we seem to have become more aware of foetal anomaly and disability, and more accepting of it. This is great in one sense, because of course we all want to live in a world where everyone is accepted without feeling segregated or stigmatised. Unfortunately, we live in a world where that doesn’t happen. We start acknowledging certain people more, so other groups fall under the radar. We are yet to create a world in which everyone is thought about. Individuals who terminate disabled foetuses are likely to receive stigma for their decisions due to the current widespread discussions on Downs Syndrome and other foetal anomalies. With all this in mind, we must remember where we came from. The truth is that one fighting point for the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act was the thalidomide tragedy, which occurred only years prior. Women and families were being prescribed legal drugs which led to devastating impairments, yet could not have legal, safe abortions. And as much as we would all love to say we would take on babies and children with disabilities, the truth is not all of us will, and not all of us should have to.

“Life doesn’t fit neatly on posters. When you try to oversimplify it you sometimes end up telling lies.” Chris Fizpatrick; consultant, obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Coombe.

I found Chris’ article when I was writing my university dissertation surrounding abortion stigma within the UK. The quote actually refers directly to the Together for Yes movement and Irish referendum which took place in May 2018. For this reason, I did not include it within my dissertation. However I feel it is relevant to the whole discussion of abortion. Life, pregnancy and abortion are not simple. They are not black and white. They are complex situations which cannot be compared to each other. We cannot say that all pregnancies which result in foetal anomaly are this or that. We cannot say what families should do with that knowledge, because it is personal and unique. All pregnancies are different, families are different, lives are different. Life is not simply yes or no, right or wrong. Life is life, and that is individual.

During the Irish Abortion Referendum in 2018 I read many articles around the debate, but on has stuck with me. One from the Belfast Telegraph, which suggests that foetal anomalies should be included within the current 24-week limit. At the moment in the UK terminations beyond the 24-week limit are only allowed in cases of harm to the mother, or foetus, or in cases of foetal anomaly. This means that we are separating disabled foetuses from healthy ones, and saying that there is more reason to terminate one over the other. While I’m not sure where I personally stand on this, I do believe it is in place for a reason. I do think abortions in general are sometimes needed beyond 24 weeks, not just ones that fit our current restrictions.

Life doesn’t fit on posters, or in legislation. Life is too complex and individual for that. We cannot simplify or generalise. We need to create a way in which women are given true freedom over abortions. A place where we trust in women and their decisions.

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