Abortion, Godde talk and spiritual development

Abortion, Godde talk and spiritual development

Many thanks to Sanda Ramage for allowing us to cross-post from her blog.

by Sande Ramage

Pregnant, yet deep within I knew I couldn’t give this baby life. The decision was made to abort and back then, over 30 years ago, I was unaware of how this experience would influence my spiritual development.

Now in my 60’s I can see how it contributed to the meaning and purpose of my life, an experience that helped me develop compassion for myself and others, and offer a timid act of resistance to the relentless patriarchy of my religious tradition.

Circumstances meant I flew to Sydney for the abortion. Should have been straightforward but mistakes were made and my life was in jeopardy because of an unidentified bleed. A Kiwi nurse held my hand as I was packed full of dressings and hooked up to a continuous blood supply. The next day she went with me to theatre where the internal damage was found and repaired, just in time. How much her connectedness with me mattered.

I remember the way she looked deep into my soul during those days of despair.  It was as though God took on female form with compassion, acceptance and love writ large on a nurse’s face and in her ritual, nurturing actions.  All done within sight and sound of the patient who told her visitors in self-righteous tones, loud enough for me to hear, about ‘the abortion over there gone wrong’.

Soon I was back home in a New Zealand church attending a baby’s funeral. I cried incessantly, deep wracking sobs. Couldn’t stop and didn’t want to even though I was piggy backing on someone else’s grief and funeral rites. Where was the rite for the remains of the child I had aborted and for the sustenance of my soul? Who decided what was sacramental, or not?

20 years on whilst training to be an Anglican priest, I found myself reliving significant life experiences, including the abortion, and beginning to write Godde instead of God. It was code for the feminine aspect of God, the tiniest act of resistance to the avalanche of male dominated thought about what we might mean by God. Thank Godde for feminist theologians who fuelled my growing discontent.

My life experience as a woman, a priest and now working to integrate spiritual care in a district health board shows me that the stories we live by matter. Furthermore, the stories of that which we hold as sacred, the inspiration to live within the existential nothingness of the void, are mighty stories that carry unspoken layers about who we are and what we might become.  They work best within rituals that ground us in the uncertainty of life and offer inspiration, especially in dark times. Imagine what it might be like if there were more Godde stories to help us do this.

I suspect a form of religious fundamentalism drives abortion protesters and stops New Zealand politicians from addressing our outdated abortion laws. Unfortunately, as Marist priest and social anthropologist Dr Gerald Arbuckle says in his book Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad, fundamentalism is an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change and fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. This skews conversation.

Conversations about how we understand life, its beginnings, endings and the messy bits in between are an evolving journey for all communities.  Our abortions matter in these conversations because they are so foundational in the mighty stories of our lives. They are excruciating moments that deserve the grounding of creative and compassionate rituals, not the destructive gauntlet of fundamentalist protest.

Fundamentalist family and not much support

My story starts when I was twenty-one… or maybe that’s when it ended, depending on your point of view. I grew up extremely religious in the fundamentalist Christian church. Both my parents were preachers, and all their parents were preachers too. My mother was even a pro-life activist. You could say I come from a long line of extreme anti-abortionists. When I was sixteen I received a letter from my grandparents threatening to disown me if I were ever to be in a de-facto relationship.

So when I found myself pregnant halfway through my first year of tertiary it was literally a nightmare scenario. I became an atheist in my early teens and developed strong feminist politics before I even got to art school so I was long divorced from the ideals of my family, but that left me the lone black sheep in a large family of fanatical Christians. I didn’t even have any non-Christian friends until I was about fourteen and due to media restrictions in my childhood I knew very little pop culture – age fourteen was also when I found out who Michael Jackson was. Thus socializing was quite difficult for me and like many young adults, I threw myself into the party scene when I moved to another city to study. The sexual repression of my family only fuelled my drive to explore my own blossoming sexuality.

I considered myself a well-informed, sexually empowered young woman at the time, and frequently availed myself of the services provided by the drop-in family planning nurse at my campus. We received five boxes of condoms every time we saw her, so I had no excuse except drunkenness and youthful idiocy for not using one the night I got pregnant.

I remember going to that same nurse for the blood test to confirm what my dizziness, nausea, cramping and missed period had already told me. I didn’t cry when she told me the test was positive, or made arrangements for follow up. I didn’t cry when I walked back to my studio and blurted out the news to some of the older female students who were hanging around. I didn’t even cry at my first ultrasound appointment even though the technician made me feel terrible for wasting her time by not arriving with a full bladder (which no one had told me to do).

I did finally cry at the second appointment where they successfully found the heartbeat needed to book me for a termination.  Understand the need for this process but it felt unusually cruel at the time – being forced to listen to the heartbeat of the child I didn’t want, even being offered a keepsake CD of the ultrasound. I had no one to go with me to that appointment. I held it together until I got to the bus stop to take myself home, then let myself sob like the infant I couldn’t possibly have.

There had never been any question of me keeping the baby. I had never wanted children, fearing my own Clinical Depression/Generalized Anxiety Disorder would be passed on – it had already begun to be wildly exacerbated by my pregnancy hormones. I also knew having a child out of wedlock would rock my family. I estimated that only my mother would have stood by me without question but she had disappeared the year before to save her failing mental health, escaping to India where I kept in contact by occasional email. At the time I felt burdening her with my pregnancy would threaten her mental condition so resolved to keep it from my family entirely.

The father was my flatmate who had since gotten into a relationship with my good friend. When I told him about my pregnancy and desire to terminate, he said very little. I was angry about his lack of reaction and eventually got him to reveal that he didn’t believe it was his at all and didn’t care either way. In the end the only people I had any support from were my best childhood friend and people I had studied with for just a handful of months.

It was one of these tenuous new study friendships that helped me the most – my closest female classmate offered to drive me to the hospital for my appointment.  This was no small offer, for whatever reason this service wasn’t offered in our city so it required driving to a hospital an hour and half away. Without the help of my friend I would have had to figure out a complex bus scheme to make it to my 9am appointment. She even let me stay the night prior at her house so we could leave directly from her place. She stayed with me when I had to take a pill to soften the cervix first, and then wait in a grim room full of comfortable armchairs occupied by uncomfortable women. Some were young like me, others looked old enough to have had a few grown children. It was understood we were all there for the same thing, but none of us spoke to each other. It wasn’t a community any of us wanted to belong in.

The surgical process itself was quick and painless, with the most unpleasant part coming when antibiotic suppositories were administered with only the briefest of warnings. I remember the doctor confirming the estimated conception date, which I luridly imagined resulted from him counting limbs or some such.

Afterwards I was offered the option of keeping the remains, which I declined. I saw other women from the same group with brown paper bags, which are apparently the standard for concealing the containers. The social worker, who had briefly spoken with me at the beginning of my appointment to confirm my mental incapacity, kindly told me that the hospital would cremate my foetuses remains and bury them under some kowhai trees. This became a symbol of my pregnancy to me, and in my stray thoughts about might-have-beens I sometimes name my never-was baby Kowhai.

Even though it felt like a fait accompli from the minute I learned of my pregnancy, I still had a lot of hesitation and regret. This is never a decision that is made lightly, whatever pro-lifers accuse us of.  I was not equipped financially, physically or mentally to carry any baby to term at that stage of my life and I truly believe I would have killed myself before the foetus ever became viable. Still, for many years after I found myself looking at children who matched the age of my not-baby. I even quit a babysitting job because the three-year-old girl was too close to the mental picture I had built up of my own imaginary child.

I told my mother a few years later. She expressed support and regret that she hadn’t been there for me – although she insists she would have raised a child for me, not quite understanding I couldn’t have ever survived that baby. She is still staunchly pro-life and has given me grief occasionally over my reproductive choices (IUDs are the same as abortions, in her view). I have told only one of my siblings, I’m still not sure how the others will react.

My expected due date was March 17th, Saint Patricks Day. All of my mothers grandparents were born in Ireland, so it would have been quite an apt birthday. I still don’t know whether to mark this date as special in any way – I don’t feel entitled to grief. A lot of people would consider me a murderer, I don’t know if I think so myself but I feel like this silent grief is my punishment. I’ve thought about getting a Kowhai tattoo to commemorate that little life, but it feels somehow selfish. Maybe one day I won’t feel this weird mixture of guilt and relief and will be able to openly claim my story. Writing this down is the first step.

Lies, delays, and judgmental doctors

I think about my abortion in 2006 as an incredibly positive choice I made for my life. Everything I had read or heard made me feel like it would haunt me forever, but this is a decision I am proud of and do not regret in the slightest.
I was 21 at the time, living in Christchurch and had just split up from my partner. We had a stable relationship and the break up was a big shock for me. A few weeks after the split, I started feeling nauseous. I was confused – I had been on birth control since I was 16, and getting pregnant was something that had never crossed my mind. I took a test, was in total physical shock, and called my mum.
She asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted an abortion. Instantly I knew it was the right decision and I was surprised that I would so confidently blurt it out. I was alone in a city where I had few friends and zero support network. I was young, I made minimum wage and I had no plans for the future.
I talked to my ex-partner and he made it clear this was a situation he would have no part of. So I made an appointment with a doctor in my neighbourhood, which I thought would be the easy part. I had no idea that medical professionals are free to refuse care for you. I found this out the hard way, by being lectured about God by a female GP, being asked to leave and waiting at a bus stop bawling my eyes out, totally alone. That doctor, and the two more that followed, were more than happy to tell me how immoral I was, but gave me no viable second option, no ideas or advice on how to care for a child as a young single mother. Finally, as I was leaving the last clinic, the receptionist followed me out and gave me the name of a doctor who would refer me to an abortion clinic. I don’t know how she knew what was going on but I was so grateful for her and the kind words she gave me. I found a doctor who would refer me, and I started the process.
Being 21 and not knowing how this system worked, I was blown away to find out that abortion is not technically legal in New Zealand. I felt as though to get an abortion I was declaring myself unfit to ever be a mother. There are set reasons to be able to access abortion services, and I didn’t feel like I fit into any of those, and so I had to lie. And I had to lie to two separate doctors.
Those doctors, as well as the reception staff, nurses and counsellors at the Lyndhurst Clinic in Christchurch, without any doubt or exaggeration, saved my life. The wait for an abortion was weeks long, and I ended up in hospital three times with severe dehydration and hyperemesis. I was severely depressed, and if I didn’t have that light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t know how I would have been able to deal with that depression in a system that has very little support for women in this situation.
My mum travelled to Christchurch to be with me on the day, but when I think about the actual procedure I think the biggest support and help I received was from the staff themselves. These professionals have a job that cannot be easy, is not glamourous but a job that is so important. The procedure went by in a flash, and was the easiest part of the process for me. I don’t remember much because I was lightly sedated, but I didn’t experience much pain if any, and had some medium to light bleeding and cramping for a few days afterwards. But it was all nothing compared to how relieved and grateful I was. I felt well, instantly like myself again and I 100% knew that what I did was the right thing.
Since then, I try to be open about my abortion. Not being able to find relatable stories was something I struggled with at the time, and I felt like I knew no one who had ever had one. But I found out my mother, another close family member and a few of my friends have all had one. Their reasons and experiences were all different to mine, but they all made the right choice for themselves and I don’t know a single person who regrets that choice.
This is a health service that should be legal in this country, and I am a huge supporter of ALRANZ and the work they do, from helping to make people aware that the laws around abortion need reforming, that parental notification isn’t always the best idea for minors, and taking action by counter-protesting at abortion clinics. They are an organisation that focuses on supporting women and their rights and I am thankful for the the people working to help women like me own their decisions and feel safe in doing so.

Delays, nausea, and encouragement

I was 24 when I got pregnant. I was in a long-distance relationship, was on the same pill I had been on since the age of 16, and mostly used condoms. I was not some stupid kid who didn’t know the risks. I wasn’t sleeping around. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t uneducated. I am up to date with my cervical smears and regularly get sexual health check-ups. I take iron supplements, I eat well, and I don’t smoke. I had a good job at a university teaching biology (ironically). I was in the process of buying a house. I was just unlucky.
Let me just say now that the worst part of my abortion was having to say that I would be seriously harmed emotionally, in order for it to be legal.
That’s not true, I just didn’t want it.
I had other priorities. I like my life how it is. I have a dog, and he is enough baby for me.  It wasn’t even that I was in a bad relationship, I had a great time with my boyfriend; we had a healthy, respectful relationship.
I was in a good position financially, plenty of money to raise a child if I felt that way inclined – but I didn’t, and still don’t.
I was in a good position in terms of my job too, I had a generous maternity plan in my permanent job. I just didn’t want it.
I had a supportive family who would have welcomed a new addition. But I still didn’t want it.
Sensing a theme here? I didn’t want it and I think that’s okay. I have no regrets. It was the right decision.
If you’re thinking that I’m not particularly maternal, or a selfish person, that’s not true either. I am a feeder, I compulsively offer to help people I’ve just met, and I spend most of my expendable income on my little sister.
It’s 2017 and I would love to see attitudes change in our conversations around abortion and motherhood. In NZ 1/5 of women don’t have children in their lifetime and we should stop shaming them.
I told my sister, my best friend, my boyfriend (obviously), and a close friend at work. I didn’t tell my parents even though they are pro-choice, mainly because abortions are sad and I wanted to spare them. When I told my boyfriend he initially refused to tell me what he wanted to do because he wanted me to decide how I felt with no pressure from him. This is the ideal situation that all women deserve. I told him I wanted an abortion and he said he fully supported my decision and that he knew it would be sad for both of us.
Now on to the technical details… I knew I was pregnant almost immediately. I had done a home test which came up positive and my period was late. I had small amounts of cramping but no blood. I googled these symptoms and identified ‘implantation cramps’ as being the most likely. I went up to Auckland Family Planning (I was living in Tauranga but am from Auckland) for my initial appointment to talk to a GP and to do another stick test. I talked to the GP and she asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted an abortion and she asked me a few questions and talked me through the process.
I then went for a blood test and yep, preggers. A side note here is that the people at the Labtests NZ did not know I was getting an abortion and asked questions like “is this your first?” and “what do you want, a boy or a girl?” I went along with it because they meant well and I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable.
A week later I had my scan to date the pregnancy, the people there were lovely and turned the monitor off so I wouldn’t have to see or hear anything. I found out I was 5 weeks pregnant. This was a week after my initial at-home stick test.
I then went back to family planning to have a sexual health test done (because if you have a surgical abortion they don’t want to risk infection). I said I would rather have a medical abortion since it was so early in my pregnancy and I was referred to the Epsom Day clinic.
Now it was Christmas time and everything was a bit delayed at all of the clinics because everyone was taking leave so I was told that the wait time would be longer than normal. I developed debilitating morning sickness, fainting, dizziness, fatigue, to the point where I would sometimes throw up 10 times before lunch. I was essentially bed ridden and any strong smells were intolerable.
At Epsom they said I would be lower priority on the wait list because they were so busy and there were other women who were closer to the legal cut-off point and that they would be booked in first. This made complete sense even if it was a nightmare. I was prescribed anti-emetics for my nausea and luckily was off work because Uni holidays! Lucky me!
I am well aware that there are thousands of women out there who had a much worse time than me and are in much tougher circumstances. I am so sorry for them.
At Epsom they asked me if I would like to see a counsellor, I said nah I’m good. They asked me a lot of questions, and I told them the standard ‘I wasn’t ready’ blah blah. The security there is heavy and this made me feel very safe. Also the waiting room is really open, which I liked because nobody is trying to hide.
In the end I got booked in for a surgical abortion at 11 weeks, 4 days. Nightmare! Two months of morning sickness so bad I lost 7kg. The hardest part of my abortion emotionally is that it feels very self-destructive.
Hours before the procedure, you take some pills. One pill relaxes your pelvic muscles to make the whole process easier on you physically, and one stops the heart of the embryo. This was the hardest part, you quietly swallow these pills like you would for a headache, knowing you are stopping the process your body working so hard for.
Then you start to feel a bit drunk because of the muscle relaxants. A nurse comes to get you, you’re in disposable underwear and a gown and you are walked to the operating room. There seems to be a nurse whose job it is just to hold your hand and tell you that you’re okay, you’re doing well. This is the sweetest thing.Then you get up into stirrups like when you get a smear and you really can’t see anything. They insert a speculum and then widen your cervix which feels like intense pressure and cramping – this made me feel a bit faint. They insert a tube and to be honest it reminded me of those old plastic surgery shows where someone is getting liposuction? They push the tube around like they’re vacuuming. Meanwhile a nurse is holding my hand and stoking my hair and saying I’m very brave. I think I cried a bit. It sucks, but the pain wasn’t any worse for me than bad period cramps. The whole thing was over in less than 5 minutes I reckon.
Then they help you to get up and walk back to your room; walking was fine for me, just a few cramps. You go and have a lie down and they monitor your bleeding (they ask you to rate the amount of blood in your underwear). When your bleeding has slowed down enough you are allowed to go home. I bled very little and was allowed to go home after an hour. I haven’t mentioned my boyfriend so far because I told him to stay down in the South Island where he lives. Really he wouldn’t have been much help and would draw too much attention to it when I was staying with my dad. Instead I got an old friend who was living in Auckland to drive me. He had to come up to reception to collect me as you are not allowed to leave alone. He was a bit late but brought me a muffin, “gotta keep up your blood sugar mate!”
I went home, told my dad I felt sick and went to sleep in the room I shared with my sister, while she did her homework. The next few days were like having a heavy period but oh my god, the nausea was better! I felt like myself again. In the following months I had a few issues; namely my follow up pregnancy test a few weeks later was positive (!?) due to leftover hormones, and I didn’t trust the pill anymore. I eventually got a Mirena inserted and have felt safe and protected ever since. The Mirena is 1000% the best decision I have ever made. My boyfriend and I broke up due to distance and I went back to work. I hardly ever think about it and when I do I just feel grateful for all the medical practitioners who helped me, and I wish I could have told the truth about just not wanting it.

Advised with falsehoods

I was inappropriately advised about the traumatic nature of abortion, and potential for permanent gynaecological damage, causing severe distress.