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‘It was a constant battle in my mind’ - the story behind region’s 4,000 abortions

PUBLISHED: 09:58 15 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:58 15 February 2020

Figures from the NHS show one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Picture: Archant/BPAS

Figures from the NHS show one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Picture: Archant/BPAS

Archant

Daisy* clearly remembers waiting to see a nurse to make a decision she never thought she would face.

The 20-year-old found out she was pregnant in her final year of university after a mix-up with contraception.

"It was one of the most, if not the most, difficult thing I have been through," she said.

"You can talk about what you would do if you were in that situation, but the reality is that you don't really know until you're sat in the chair being told you're unexpectedly pregnant.

"I was having a constant battle in my mind, running through hundreds of scenarios while struggling to even comprehend what had happened.

"I remember being sat in the chair with my partner by my side, not really knowing what to expect. I was scared and in crisis."

She is far from alone - figures from the NHS show one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

The 20-year-old, who lives and works in Norwich, said: "It took me a while to come to terms with what happened, I went through a stage of grief, relief and disbelief."

Data from the Department for Health and Social Care show 3,869 women in Norfolk and Suffolk had abortions in 2018. Women aged between 20 and 24 had more abortions than any other age group, with the numbers counting for more than 1,000.

Pro-life group 40 Days For Life protesting against abortion at the Norwich BPAS Clinic at Norwich Community Hospital.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYPro-life group 40 Days For Life protesting against abortion at the Norwich BPAS Clinic at Norwich Community Hospital. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Two women on the frontline of the service are Sue and Kathy, who both work for the Norwich clinic at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), an independent healthcare charity.

Sue, who works as the treatment unit manager in the clinic and has chosen not to give her surname, started working for the charity in May 2017 after training as a nurse and working for the NHS since 1978.

She joined BPAS when looking for career change.

"I had seen an advert for BPAS a few years previous to when I applied, however circumstances did not allow me the flexibility to work the hours required," she said.

Figures from the Department for Health and Social Care show 3,869 women in Norfolk and Suffolk had abortions in 2018. Picture: BPASFigures from the Department for Health and Social Care show 3,869 women in Norfolk and Suffolk had abortions in 2018. Picture: BPAS

"At the time I did think the job sounded extremely interesting and would encompass my skills as a nurse with contraceptive experience."

As with many jobs, work at the BPAS clinic can vary on a day-to-day basis, depending on the clients.

"Some can be very straightforward and others more challenging," Sue said.

When asked if any stories in particular over the years stood out to her, she recalled a homeless woman who came to the clinic for help.

"The one that stands out for me was a lady who arrived in clinic, she looked very unkempt and had several carrier bags with her," Sue said.

"She was homeless and sofa surfing.

"She had been attacked but did not want to report this as she said she did not think people would take her seriously due to the situation she was in, she felt as though she deserved to be attacked.

"She asked if she could leave her bags with us in the consulting room while she waited for her treatment as she didn't want them to be stolen from the waiting area, her life was in those bags.

NHS figures show one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Picture: PA/Thinkstock PhotosNHS figures show one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. Picture: PA/Thinkstock Photos

"After she had received her treatment she came back into my room to collect her bags and was so genuinely grateful she wanted to shake my hand to say thank you as she didn't think I would want to hug her due to her appearance.

"It goes without saying that I gave her the biggest hug I could, she will always stay with me."

Women who come to the clinic can be nervous, confused and emotional, the women said.

Kathy, one of the midwives at the Norwich clinic, spoke of the importance of doing her job well.

Norwich Community Hospital Picture: Nick ButcherNorwich Community Hospital Picture: Nick Butcher

She said: "It's simple, I see myself as an advocate for women seeking an abortion.

"My role is to support women going through the process and for them to come out at the end of the process having not been judged or made to feel that they have done anything wrong.

"For some women this can be an incredibly difficult time, so if I can make a difference then I have done my job well."

Currently, abortions can only legally take place in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Two doctors must approve the procedure and agree that having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman than a termination.

The 1967 Abortion Act first allowed them to take place up to 28 weeks, but this was reduced to 24 weeks in 1990.

The issue has come under the spotlight in recent years - it was decriminalised in Northern Ireland at midnight last October after years of campaigning.

The change in legislation was described as "a momentous victory for women's rights" by Katherine O'Brien, the associate director at BPAS. But not everyone feels the same.

Pro-life group 40 Days For Life protesting against abortion at the Norwich BPAS Clinic at Norwich Community Hospital. Picture: ANTONY KELLYPro-life group 40 Days For Life protesting against abortion at the Norwich BPAS Clinic at Norwich Community Hospital. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Protests have taken place outside various abortion clinics across the country, including Norwich, where in 2018 pro-life group 40 Days for Life stood outside the entrance of the Norwich Community Hospital with signs saying 'can we help?'

Sue said: "We have had protesters but we are fortunate that where we are located, they are unable to access the actual building but have to remain on the main road.

"For this reason it hasn't been a major issue unlike some of our colleagues who have the protestors standing right outside the building. Everyone has a right to access their healthcare without judgement or prejudice."

When asked how it makes her feel to see protestors, Kathy said: "Sad. Sad for the clients that must walk past the protestors and hear archaic opinions.

"No one has the right to judge another individual on their choices in life and abortion is no different. Never has a phrase been more accurate than the line 'before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes'."

While Kathy and Sue's job can be rewarding, it also comes with challenges.

A job in an abortion clinic can be a tough task, especially as each woman has a different reason for attending a clinic.

Sue said: "I use the drive home to unwind and reflect by listening to music, work is work and home is home.

"I am also very fortunate to have a supportive family and network of friends away from work."

And Kathy has a similar approach to winding down. She said "being with my family and friends and taking lovely walks with the dog along the beach" helps her switch off.

She said: "Debriefing is an import aspect of our role, ensuring all staff can go home and 'switch off' if they have been involved in a difficult case."

When a woman enters the clinic to have an abortion, they will be directed through different pathways depending on the type of treatment they are attending for.

Clients are always seen by somebody to discuss their choice and ensure that they are making it freely and have no circumstances which make them vulnerable.

"We see women from a variety of age groups, cultures and diversities," said Sue. "But each client is an individual and to be able to help them when they are in a crisis is extremely rewarding.

"I do believe that things are changing but I hope in the future that attending an abortion clinic is as acceptable as visiting the GP."

The nurses in every abortion clinic in the country can change a woman's experience of abortion.

Daisy said: "I could not have asked for a more supportive group of nurses when I was going through my abortion.

"They were not judgemental and they gave me all the help and support that I needed. Without them nurses I would have been a mess.

"Looking back I know I made the right decision and I'm glad I had the opportunity to make that choice for myself."

*Name changed upon request.


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