Time to talk about Shame

This is an uplifting story about a girl’s opportunity to challenge some sexist dudes and realise that feminism is important. It is a coming-of-age story, a story about discovery, epiphany and a journey towards a newly-gained maturity. It has a happy ending, as the protagonist defeats the bad guys and wins the prize. This is the story of my abortion.

Having read Ingrid’s rant on the coupledom compulsion, followed by a chapter in Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman about her abortion, I thought I would weigh in on my experience. I’ve always felt women should talk more about abortions to normalise a topic that is taboo for silly reasons, but it’s kind of difficult to insert into a casual conversation.

I’d always been a feminist, of course, but I didn’t realise it. One of the reasons I didn’t think I needed to be a feminist is that my mom was so awesome. She told me daily how smart/pretty I was, how I could do anything I wanted, and I totally believed her. I met some dicks, and I had encountered impersonal sexism on a societal level, but my personal experiences with it were negligible. I need to point out that while I am very grateful for my mom for raising me this way, and it’s given me a strong sense of identity and confidence, actually she totally misrepresented the world.

Another important aspect of me is naïveté. My mom raised me an atheist, and I found out from the kids at school about Jesus, and, shortly thereafter, that I would be going to Hell. This was not particularly scary at the time, since I read a lot of fantasy books anyway, so I suspected they were delusional. I mean come on, a place of eternal fire and suffering is fiction. Under the influence of my grandmother (unbeknownst to my mom), I later read some bible stories … but they didn’t seem as interesting as the other things I was reading. I didn’t yet know that these beliefs could be forced onto others, so I didn’t feel threatened by them.

I never intended to have kids, and she never told me I would have to, or would change my mind, or whatever. She said I was too young to make important decisions for myself at the age of 14, so I couldn’t have a hysterectomy, but she has never put any pressure on me to be fertile. She also taught me that abortion was an individual woman’s choice, that it was a minor operation you could have to deal with a problem (if it was a problem to you or to your health). Abortion has been semi-legal in Canada since 1969; as the elder Trudeau said, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” Thanks to Dr Morgentaler, bureaucratic limitations and limitations of access were also removed in 1988. I heard about abortion protests and bombings in the USA, but again, this was something that happened in different countries.

When I was 25 or so, I got pregnant. I react really badly to pills and needles full of hormones, so after trying the lot of them over a 5 year period, I quit that, and was relying on a combination of various not-super-reliable methods. Actually, that worked for a surprisingly long time. Anyway, I was pregnant, that was annoying, I’d never had an operation before, but that was my only real concern. The boyfriend asked me what I wanted and said he would support me either way. I thought that was the right thing for him to say. I didn’t want a child. There was no moral dilemma here. I felt fine. I hate going to the doctor, but whatever, you gotta do it.

I was living in Germany at the time. I had this fantastic gynaecologist. He was really friendly and personable. He had found out right away I was from Canada and spoke a mix of French and English at me in between all the German. He was a nice guy. I told him I thought I was pregnant and could he check that out for me. I guess he could tell by my attitude (i.e. not excited), that I was not super into this, and his demeanor changed immediately. This put my back up, but mostly I was confused, because I thought abortion was legal and that while I’d heard of people being judgy, a doctor wouldn’t do that. Also he was always nice. Thus my naïveté caused me to tolerate a lot more bullshit than I otherwise would have. He did an ultrasound and said, “here, I will show you the baby.” But it’s not a baby. He printed out a picture for me and put the heartbeat on loud. I kind of smiled, because this is just such an obvious and cheap ploy, but I was also outraged by his audacity. What the fuck. If I had been uncertain about my decision, that cheap trick would have fucked with me. That is not how you help someone to make an informed medical decision, by attempting to apply emotional blackmail. What kind of doctor does that? Well, I asked him about the process for abortion in Germany, and without directly saying so, he made it really clear that this was a Bad Decision. He also proceeded to give me some bad advice.

The first thing he told me was about the restrictions. In order to get an abortion in Germany, you can’t just make an appointment. You need to first go and have a talk with and then obtain a signature from either a pastor/priest, or a councillor from the Pro Familia, the German version of Planned Parenthood. Then you must wait three days. After three days, you can go to your gynaecologist, pick up a prescription, and then make your way over to the abortion. You can imagine my rage. I think it is wonderful if counselling is offered in this situation, again especially to people who are not sure about their decision or unhappy with the decision they feel it is necessary to make. To force it onto someone implies that they are not capable of making such a decision, and that is ridiculous. I obviously was not going to a priest, and a society called ‘pro familia’ didn’t sound very objective to me, but whatever, I would go.

I also asked him about costs. He said I would have to ask my health insurance, which was probably a lie. For someone who was clearly as opposed to abortion as he turned out to be, you’d expect him to know the legalities, and in the end, he did. I expect he wanted me to navigate the system myself and find it as difficult as possible. In fact, state health insurance pays for abortions only if they are the result of rape, could endanger the life of the woman pregnant, or if she does not have enough money to support the child. The amount defined as ‘enough’ is 1001 euros a month. You must show your income in order to have it covered, and then your doctor must sign it off. Both these steps must happen before you can get the abortion.

Finally, I asked if he knew a place near where I lived where I could have the procedure done. He recommended a colleague. He also let me know that I had to have everything done by week 12, and it was week 10. Then he smiled. I guess he knew that it would be difficult to get everything done by then. On my way out I appreciated the dozens and dozens of baby pictures in the waiting room in a different light.

So I went home and started making appointments. An appointment with Pro Familia, and appointment with my health insurance, another appointment with my dick gyno three days after Pro Familia, and the appointment for a consultation with his colleague who will perform the abortion itself. Meanwhile I’m doing as much research as I can on the process and operation. The first appointment I get is for the consultation. I go in to meet … not the doctor who will perform the abortion. I meet the anaesthetist. The anaesthetist tells me how it will be done, Tuesday is abortion day, so I can come in Tuesday, he’ll put me out along with all the others, the other doctor will come by and ‘take care of everything’, and we’ll all wake up a few hours later. You don’t even need to meet that doctor. I was a little confused by this – from what I’d read, you don’t need to be put out for such a minor procedure, and I saw no reason to for anything but local anaesthetic. He told me (a lie) that that was not how it was done in Germany, that you had to be put out. I was confused by this, but since I had mostly done my research in English, I didn’t know he was lying. He then told me, ‘it’s better for the women anyway if they don’t know what happened.’ So I left. It’s better for the women if they’re not talked down to by assholes. I was very angry. Doctors should not make judgements. I went home and did more research, all in German this time. I still cannot believe he had the gall to lie to me.

Then I went to Pro Familia. By now, I was less naive. I had prepared myself for a conflict. I knew exactly what we were required to talk about, and I was prepared to be hostile if necessary, and I knew my exact rights. I met the woman, who was very nice, which caught me off guard – I was expecting a moral lecture on the rights of the unborn infant, more misinformation, or  another round of judgement. She told me that we could talk about anything I wanted, but we didn’t have to if I didn’t want to; the only thing she was required to tell me about is the state money that I am eligible to receive if I have a baby. I told her that I was a foreigner so not eligible for anything, and she said, that’s right, well what should we talk about then? You’re from Canada? I would love to travel there, please tell me about your home. Then we gossiped about Canada a bit and I got my signature. She also recommended a place to get the abortion in a nearby city where she’d heard really positive feedback from other women. It was the first time in this process I’d felt treated like a human. I am really grateful to her. I called them and got a consultation for the next day.

I then went to this clinic, and they were amazing. This was what I had expected the whole process to be like. The doctor and a nurse met with me in advance, they were warm and friendly. I remember he had funny brightly-coloured shoes. They explained the procedure, my options, what I could expect afterwards, and also offered advice for dealing with the health insurance. They also didn’t lie to me. They told me that I could be put under if I really wanted to, but with such a minor operation it would be better to have a local anaesthetic. They also told me they used a new (at the time) technique, which was a combination of the abortion pill given in a lower dose 24 hours in advance, which leads to partial sloughing of the uterine lining, and makes the whole procedure easier. They gave me the pill, told me when to take it, and the nurse gave me her personal phone number and told me to call her anytime for any reason. Sigh of relief.

The next day I went to get my health insurance sorted. I spoke with my (female) agent, who was very supportive and discreet, but unfortunately, I would need to get the form signed by her superior, who was not in just then. I knew exactly what my rights were and I had all the evidence with me … and he tried to hassle me about it and that it was his position to inform me about the consequences of this. I was able to tell him what I needed and what he needed from me and that that was all there was to it; he was legally required to sign off my form and not to give me any information whatsoever. My agent picked up the form from the printer and gave me a conspiratorial smile. It felt pretty good.

The next day, I had all the forms to go back to my gynaecologist and get his signature so I could finally have the abortion. I went in steeled. I thought it through, and decided I wasn’t going to provoke anything, and if he was pleasant or if just basically polite, I would say nothing. But I wasn’t going to take even the tiniest bit of crap either. So all I needed was a signature. I went to the secretary and asked for it – it was already prepared and she had it, but the doctor had instructed her that I needed to see him first, I couldn’t just take it and go. I suspected, because he wanted one more opportunity to let me feel his judgement. Dick. I had an appointment, I was not a walk-in, but he let me wait, and after about 40 minutes I had had enough. I told the receptionist I wouldn’t have time to see him, because my abortion appointment was in an hour, and I had to leave right away. Miraculously, he could make time to see me immediately. I went in to see him calmly, not with a huge smile, but confident. He was very silent as he filled out some form, just giving me dark looks. He asked if I was going to the doctor he recommended, and I told him I was not and gave him the reasons. He looked surprised but didn’t comment. He stood up and gave me the signed form I was there to receive, and I almost thought he was going to manage to judge me only with his eyes, and not with words. I don’t even remember now, what it was he said, with his hand already on the doorknob to leave. He wanted to get one last judgement in after all. I told him very politely that I didn’t think it was very professional for a doctor to judge me, and he started yelling at me. He opened the door and walked out of the room, into the hallway and towards the waiting room, yelling that he was not unprofessional in the least and had given me all the support I needed. This ‘shame’ tactic, for by the time he finished his short speech, we were in the waiting room, and there were 6 or 7 women waiting there, only works if you actually feel ashamed, and I did not. So I yelled back. I told him that he had not been supportive in the least, and that he had made his judgement clear from the moment I told him I did not want a pregnancy. I told him that his words and actions were judgemental, and that if I had been in a different place emotionally, he would have made this decision much more difficult emotionally, which is irresponsible. I told him that I would be looking for a different doctor in the future. Surprised by my resistance, he had made an about-face and was retreating to the privacy of one of his rooms. All the women were watching. He said in leaving that that was good, because I was no longer welcome in his practice.

So much adrenaline! I went to pick up my form from the receptionist (who had also heard everything), and she gave it to me with a broad smile. I smiled back.

Post Scriptum

Ha ha, I’m a bit of an idiot though. Despite all this planning and organisation, I almost messed it up. They give their patients a pill 18 hours before the op: it’s a lighter dosage of the RU-486, which begins light vaginal contractions in advance, making the abortion itself a little easier. I went to a friend’s place the night before and we stayed up late talking. Because I am the biggest airhead in the world, I forgot to take it. I called my nurse early in the morning in a panic, told her I forgot and what should I do? Would I have to reschedule? I could hear her kids in the background. She asked me if I was sure that I wanted to go through with it. That confused me, of course I did, I was just nervous about having to reschedule. She very diplomatically explained that forgetting to take such an important pill ahead of what can be an emotional procedure often indicated uncertainty. Oh yeah. So I told her, oh no no no, I am absolutely sure, do not worry. I really just am that ridiculously forgetful. I forgot to attend a final exam for my MA because I am that much of an airhead, believe me, there is no uncertainty, just idiocy on my part. She somewhat bemusedly told me to just take it now then, 8 hours wouldn’t make much of a difference. What a dope.

I got to the clinic, I felt good. The doctor and nurses were as wonderful as in the consultation. The doctor told me with all those tattoos, I wouldn’t even notice this, and proceeded to ask me questions about Canada and my studies the whole time I was there. My head was a little foggy with the meds they were giving me, so it took all my concentration to answer, and I remember feeling slightly frustrated I couldn’t ask him what was going on, which I like to do when doctors are messing around with my body, but otherwise I felt great. I went to chill in the recovery room for a half hour beaming. What an ordeal. I was so happy. There was another girl in the room with me, but she was facing away from me. I spoke to the woman with her who introduced herself as her aunt. I guess she wasn’t able to tell her parents. The aunt was very nice, she asked me a few questions, like how old I was. She told me her niece was ‘only 17, so this was the only option.’ In my post-op euphoria, that made me really sad. You should never have to justify an abortion. If it’s what you want or need, it’s the right decision.

I came out of this whole experience with a changed view of the world. Germany views itself and is viewed as being a secular society which is very advanced in terms of women’s rights. I did not find this process in any way progressive in terms of people’s attitudes or the legal requirements. I felt mostly anger throughout, but also frustration, confusion when I was lied to, and betrayal by doctors who were supposed to be helping me to make informed decisions. The only point I felt sad was for the 17-year old girl who felt ashamed. While I was able to deal with this fairly well, that is because a) I was a confident 25-year old woman (and not 17 or with low self-esteem or something), b) I was absolutely certain that this was what I wanted, and c) I have no moral qualms about abortion in the first place. I still cried in frustration at the process and the judgement when I got back from the jerk anaesthetist. I felt righteous ire with my gynaecologist, but if I had wanted a baby and decided not to have one for whatever practical reasons, or had been young with unsupportive parents, having the heartbeat unfeelingly blasted at me would have been pretty difficult.

My conclusion at the time was: good for my mom for misrepresenting the world! She made me believe that I am living in a place that is as we want it to be – equal for all. This gave me the confidence to expect to be treated this way and to be really pissed off when I wasn’t. I was very grateful to her during and after all of this. It also made me realise why it is important to be a feminist. I hadn’t ‘needed’ feminism previously. I had never noticed I was treated differently, I was confident and outspoken and asserted my rights if I felt it necessary (which was not uncommon). I had seen sexism, but I thought a confident woman can deal with that. Going through an abortion in a supposedly liberal country (and I don’t wish to defame Germany here, I loved living there and I’m sure there are similar issues with abortion in most countries, if not all) taught me that sexism is still institutionalised, and that even if it isn’t affecting me at the moment, it is affecting others, eroding their self-esteem, making them feel shame, or pressuring them into decisions they do not want to make. I didn’t feel any shame, but I was very aware of others’ attempts to cause me to feel shame.

And how do we change this? By talking about it.

written by Courtnay

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