‘The stigma of abortion traumatised me as much as the procedure itself’

I met Samantha* to talk about the experience she passed through more than a decade ago, when she underwent an abortion. We sat in silence for a few minutes, her – visibly tormented, concentrating on thoughts, me – not having the courage to proceed with the questions. She lit up a cigarette and looked at me. “First pack of cigarettes in eight and a half years”, she said, finally breaking the silence

Photo by Anthony Tran (Unsplash)
Photo by Anthony Tran (Unsplash)

In 2005, aged 23, Samantha was already a single parent of a three-year-old girl. It was a turbulent phase in her life. In addition to her parenting responsibilities, she was a second-year student at university, still living in her parents’ house. Samantha was madly in love with a man, with whom she had been in a relationship for a little longer than a year. “Although he was not the father of my three-year-old”, she tells me, “he was my first true love”.

Despite the love Samantha and her partner had for each other, their relationship was complicated, even tense at times.

Previously a heroin addict, the man was freshly off therapy and was still on methadone, a substitute for heroin. Before the relationship, his life was full of hardship and that left a deep mark on his character.

The past addiction and the following therapy added frequent mood swings to the challenges their relationship was facing. Samantha recalls that time as being “full of ups and downs, with more downs than ups”. Still, she says they shared a profound spiritual intimacy and had a deep respect for each other in pretty much every situation, except sex.

When it came to intercourse, the mutual understanding was absent: wearing a condom was not an option for the partner, whereas she was unwilling to opt for birth control pills.

To make matters worse, the partner routinely dismissed her warnings and followed no basic precautions to prevent pregnancy.

“We had a lot of arguments about it”, says Samantha, “I was concerned I could get pregnant, but he ‘reassured’ me that, due to weak health, his seed was of poor quality, and so I would not be able to carry a pregnancy anyway”.

The rollercoaster continued until late May 2005, when Samantha suspected she might be pregnant.

Her despair was beyond words.

After the initial shock, her thoughts immediately turned to her parents: “How would I tell them I was pregnant, second time round, in a circumstance when I was not capable of taking care of a family?” Samantha was concerned the news would cause a blow to her parents’ health.

She was also scared of ending up on the street. “I was 23, still a student and my financial situation did not allow me to pay rent anywhere. I didn’t have enough money to live on my own and, had my parents decided to turn away from me, I would have to face the threat of homelessness.”

However, it was the partner’s reaction that influenced her final decision most. Upon learning about the pregnancy, the man she loved shrugged shoulders, abandoning her face-to-face with anguish. He offered no moral support. He simply withdrew.

Samantha turns emotional, recalling those dark days: “At that moment, the major thing I lacked was a supportive partner. Had I such a partner, I would have continued with the pregnancy. All I needed was somebody to say: Yes, I am going to be there for you.”

Being a single parent, she knew the difficulties of bringing up a child on her own too well. The father of her daughter chose not to share responsibility, leaving the 19-year-old woman no option but to raise the child by herself. She says, the first three years of parenthood were extremely stressful. “I was trying to rebuild myself, to have a career. I was not passing through a good phase in my life and I didn’t want to bring the child up in that kind of environment either.”

Battling with shame and hesitation, Samantha sought the advice of a private gynaecologist, begging her for information on how to terminate the pregnancy. The doctor refused. “The internet will provide the indications you need,” was the only reply she received.

Left with no support from her partner, fearing to disclose the pregnancy to her parents, scared of talking about it with friends, Samantha was between a rock and a hard place. Abortion seemed to be the only option for her at that time. She did not have much time to question this decision further and there seemed to be no alternatives to consider.

Once the exams were over, she booked an appointment at a clinic in Ealing, London.

The procedure cost 1,000 Maltese lira (around 2,300 Euro) which was way too expensive for a student with no income. In order to obtain the necessary amount, she applied for a loan, pretending she would use it to buy a car (a quote from a car dealer was enough to receive the money). In a few days’ time she was in London, accompanied by a loyal friend.

The hours at the clinic were most disturbing. The ultrasound procedure frightened and tormented her. “You see the baby on the screen and this is when it truly hits you”, she says. It turned out that her pregnancy was not being carried well: the doctors could not locate the heartbeat of the foetus. “The baby inside me was dead and I did not even know it. I was not followed up by any specialist in Malta since I could not disclose my condition”.

The abortion was painful physically and psychologically traumatic. Despite the foetus not being alive, Samantha could not bear the thought of what she had just passed through.

“I cried so much. The personnel seemed shocked by how much a person could cry over what, to them, was a routine clinical procedure”. While trying to rest in an individual room, she could see a row of women who were at the clinic for the same reason. Many of them were teenage girls, looking as young as 14. Abortion at the Ealing clinic appeared to be practically an industrial process.

Samantha quit her relationship immediately after returning to Malta. She suffered a double loss – of her child and of the man, whom she loved but no longer wanted to be with.

The most devastating consequence, however, was the enormous, excruciating sense of guilt and shame. She felt buried under its weight. “The abortion broke my confidence; my self-esteem was shot to pieces. I could not stop blaming myself for being a bad person.”

To relieve the grip of the guilt complex, she went to numerous counselling sessions. Still, for more than eight years the woman was unable to recall the experience without weeping. Besides, she was reminded of it every month for four and a half years during which she had to repay the loan. For years she commemorated the loss of the child on the anniversary of the abortion.

 

Looking back

Astonished by the story and feeling emotional, I ask Samantha whether she had the courage to share this experience with her parents and friends.

It seems unthinkable that, after having learnt about the hardship she went through, someone could still condemn her decision.

Samantha is not certain about it: “People would still judge the action I took, no matter how hard it was for me.” She laments the stigma of young mothers in Malta, adding that she could cope with contempt for her past lifestyle, but not the abortion. “I could not tell my story because I’d lose friends, colleagues and jobs.”

Now Samantha is a proud mother of an amiable, smart and beautiful young woman. She has three jobs in order to sustain the family, but does her best to feel optimistic.

Looking back at her life 15 years ago, time and time again, she admits that abortion was the only option she had.

She hopes the procedure will be available in Malta: Had abortion been available in Malta and had there been no stigma, she says, it would make her experience less psychologically traumatic.

“At least I would not have suffered the loss of self-esteem and the sense of guilt would not have been as profound”.

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