Why women shouldn't think of abortion as a 'dirty little secret'
There's help available from people who know just how much it can hurt, writes Celine Naughton
Women Hurt is a new website set up by Lynn Coles and Bernadette Goulding to help women who regret their abortions find peace and move on with their lives.
While the separate support groups they work with -- Rachel's Vineyard Ireland and Surrendering the Secret -- are founded on church-based ministries, the women insist that their new project has no religious, political or moral agenda.
"We have people of all races, creeds and social divides," says Lynn.
"It's not about putting a guilt trip on anybody; we're just providing a forum for those who struggle with abortion. Women Hurt is a portal where people can read, comment and share their stories if they wish."
"We can't change the past," says Bernadette, "but we can spare people years of suffering and help them move to a brighter future."
However, not everybody is supportive of the project and Susan McKay, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI), argues that it will do little to ease the suffering of women.
"I feel it is counter-productive as it sends out the message that women should feel guilty, but I am aware of many women who have had abortions and live comfortably with that decision," she says.
"It is also traumatic having to give birth after a rape, for instance, or in any of the other circumstances involved in crisis pregnancy."
As a new HSE report shows that one-in-three Irish mothers has experienced a crisis pregnancy, this debate looks set to continue for some time.
"Crisis pregnancy is always a painful, difficult and lonely experience for a woman," says Susan McKay. "The NWCI supports a woman's right to choose. Abortion is a serious undertaking and women don't go into it lightly, but for many it is the right decision. And while there may be sorrow, there is no need for remorse or regret."
Meanwhile, Lynn Coles and Bernadette Goulding say many women do have regrets and invite them to share their stories and seek help rather than suffer in silence.
Lynn Coles, 49, from Belfast, is married with two daughters aged 20 and 13
"After school I emigrated to England and at 18, I was a staff car driver in the army. My boyfriend was in the navy. We'd been together for 14 months and he was in Norway when a pregnancy test I took at work turned out to be positive.
"The doctor told me, 'You've plenty of time to have children. I can fit you in for an abortion next week.'
"This was 1980, and the only way to contact my boyfriend was by sending a telegram. He didn't receive it until it was all over.
"I went for an abortion at a military hospital where I was put in a ward with army wives who had their babies wrapped in pink and blue blankets and visitors brought pretty balloons and flowers. Nobody spoke to me. There was no compassion. Even then I thought, 'This isn't right'.
"When I came to, I had a vague memory of having woken during the procedure and feeling a tugging sensation. I asked the nurse, 'Did I wake up during the operation?' She replied in a loud and condescending voice, 'Don't be stupid!' That day, the walls went up. I felt dirty and ashamed and decided never to talk about it again.
"Before my discharge, a doctor threw some contraceptive pills on my bed and said, 'We don't want to see you back here again'. That was the extent of my counselling.
"I went back to work and my boyfriend and I married, but inside I was devastated. And angry -- at myself for getting pregnant, at him for not protecting me, and at the figures of authority who had encouraged me to save my career, which I grew to hate. Our marriage didn't survive and I left the army.
"When I met my second husband, after a miscarriage I became pregnant again and as I read books detailing the growth and development of our baby, I felt betrayed once more. I have been involved in abortion recovery for over 15 years, on a voluntary basis. I now lead a programme called Surrendering the Secret, which works well in the North.
People struggling with abortion cannot just pull their socks up. They have to go through all the stages of grief before reaching acceptance and finally letting go."
Bernadette Goulding from Cork is married with three children and nine grandchildren
"I worked as a secretary in England and, at the age of 19, when my boyfriend and I had broken up, I discovered I was pregnant. I was terrified. What would my parents think if they found out? I couldn't bring that shame on the family.
"I desperately wanted to turn back the clock, but instead, I ended up in hospital suffering from dehydration.
"The doctor asked about my circumstances and I said, 'I can't go home'. Then he discussed termination. I remember him talking about how the 'products of conception' would be removed.
"I just wanted it over with and made my decision in haste. To this day I can see the face of the anaesthetist telling me everything would be fine.
"When I woke up I was screaming the place down. I was very traumatised and left hospital a different person.
"In the weeks and months ahead, I became paranoid with my 'dirty little secret'. I felt as if I had a big 'A' marked on my forehead. I was anxious during the day and had nightmares when I slept.
"In desperation, I went to a toy shop and bought a little doll that cried. I carried that doll with me every day for a year. I'd put it in my handbag going to work and cradle it in my arms when I got home.
"I stopped carrying the doll when I met my husband. I told him everything because I wanted no secrets between us.
"On the anniversary of my abortion, I used to cry myself to sleep. Consumed by guilt, I thought I'd be better off dead, because I had done something so awful.
"When I became pregnant the midwife asked, 'Is this your first child?' I knew it wasn't, but I didn't tell her that. I didn't tell anybody. I kept people at a distance in case they ever found out.
"Finally, 15 years ago, I had become close friends with a woman to the point where I thought, 'Here goes, let's challenge this friendship'. I closed my eyes so I didn't have to see her horrified reaction as I poured my heart out to her.
"When I was finished, she was crying.
"She said, 'Don't waste your suffering. Use it for good'.
That was the beginning of the end of my self-imposed isolation. In dismantling my secret, I started to reach out to other women and in 2003 I became co-ordinator of Rachel's Vineyard Ireland, a charity which offers weekend retreats for people who have struggled with the emotional pain of abortion.
"People of all ages, from 17 to 60, attend these weekends and it is very rewarding to see them finally able to deal with their grief, forgive themselves and move on."
Cathy (not her real name) had an abortion at the age of 24, a decision she says she has never regretted.
"I became pregnant after a fling with an ex-boyfriend," she says. "He said he'd help me financially and in other ways if I wanted to have the baby, but I didn't want to be tied to him or to a child. Career opportunities were just starting to open up for me and I had no desire to become a mother.
"I went for counselling and decided to travel to the UK for an early termination. It was a straightforward procedure and I was relieved to have it done. I'm 48 now, married with two children, I have a job I enjoy and good friends. It seems so long ago, I really don't think about it.
"I have great sympathy for women who suffer emotionally after their abortions, but all I can say is that for me, it was the right decision at the time and I have no regrets."