Recent press regarding abortion counselling and the Right to Know has got me thinking about the services and advice I received, asking myself, ‘To what measure did it help me?’.
I have re-read old blog posts from the early months of last year, when I discovered I was pregnant. Here is my experience, as written in March 2010:
I’ve had several trips to the NHS abortion clinic in the past few weeks. The process is pretty straightforward, you phone them and book a consultation, they assess that you are sure about your decision and then you can book an appointment for your preferred method of termination, the waiting list is up to two weeks.
I felt very uncomfortable on the first visit. I didn’t want to be there because I didn’t want to have to make any decision. In hindsight, it was too early for me to be there. It’s a very impersonal place filled with people going through a very personal thing.
The plant in the corner of the waiting room had a note above it which read, ‘Please do not throw rubbish into the plant pot, it stunts its growth’.
The woman who did my consultation was nice enough. They ask you why you are there, put your words into simplified notes and read them back to you to make sure they’ve got it right. They don’t allow anyone in with you, they want to see you on your own to make sure that no one is influencing your decision. I told her that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I was mainly there for information at that point. I was then sent off for a scan (7 weeks and 1 day) and that was the end of the process that day. If I had been sure of what I wanted to do, I would have gone on to see the doctor, checked up and booked in for a procedure. I wasn’t given any information about further support or counseling I could receive, however this is easy enough and available enough to find on the internet.
The second visit to the same clinic was two weeks later. I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do, but I felt that time was running out and I wanted to have something booked. I thought it might help me realise what I want. I had another consultation with the same woman. I listed off all the reasons that made me uncomfortable about having a baby – I don’t want to be pregnant, I’m not ready to be responsible for someone else for the rest of my life, I like my life now, etc. Obviously I left out all the feelings I had that conflict with these reasons. I wondered whether I sounded convincing. Apparently I did. She took notes, read them back to me, and I was back out in the waiting room. The consultation lasted no more than five minutes, probably more like three minutes. She asked me if I was sure. I said 80-85%.
Next I went in to see the nurse. Another scan, 8 weeks and 1 day. She didn’t volunteer that information, I had to ask. From the first scan 2 weeks ago, I thought I’d be coming up to 9 weeks by then. They don’t show you the screen or the printouts. My height and weight was measured. Blood pressure taken. Allergy and medication info taken. I had to list all the recreational drugs I’d ever taken, and give specific details about the most recent times. She wasn’t impartial, it felt like a confession. She offered me the pill for after the procedure, and proceeded to tell me about the pill without asking if I’d ever used it before.
Just before the blood test she went through the finer details of the procedure and told me the potential risks and side effects. Great choice of wording here, ‘If your cervix or womb is damaged during surgery, the doctors will know straight away, and you will be rushed to hospital where they will repair you’. That left me feeling nice and light headed for my blood test. The nurse was generally all over the place, couldn’t find anything, had a collection of previous blood tests going brown on the table next to us, Sam also commented that it all seemed distinctly amateur which made me think it wasn’t just me being paranoid. Added to the doubts I already had, nothing that occurred that day made me feel overly confident about going there for surgery.
Nevertheless I booked an appointment. Despite being told it could be a two week wait, I found myself being offered an early morning slot for the next day. I knew that was too soon, and I didn’t really fancy an abortion on Mother’s day, so I declined. The next available slot was that Thursday, 5 days later. I booked in for Sunday 21st, giving me a week to keep thinking it over.
I cancelled that appointment today.
Obviously, you know what my eventual decision was. But this is not about my decision-making process, that is, perhaps, for another post. This post is about the advice and support I received along my way to making up my mind.
In my re-reading, I have noted that I did not refer to the talks I had at the abortion clinic as counselling, I don’t believe I felt like it was counselling at all. It was purely an assessment. I got the impression that these sessions are very routine for them. They see so many girls come through their door each day, some probably with a lot more certainty than I had. The woman was not their to help me talk through options, her aim was to make sure I was definite in my decision. As it happened, I did want to talk through my options, so I went elsewhere.
I sought out independent counselling through Care Confidential. A girl on the switchboard gave my details to a local counsellor, who called me later that day to arrange a time to meet. I was initially daunted when she revealed the venue for our meeting was a church function room. However, she reassured me that the organisation was nothing to do with the church, they were just making use of the free facilities. There was no charge for the session. This woman gave up two hours of her evening to help me make sense of my list of pros and cons, and draw out thought charts. She listened whilst I tried to organise my feelings. I had reached no conclusions by the end of our time together. We agreed that she would call me a week later in case I decided I wanted more time to talk it through with her.
I only knew her name and her background in counselling. I wanted to know whether she had children. I fought the desperate urge to ask her what she thought I should do. Did she think I was being silly for considering abortion when I was in a loving relationship and had the means to care for a child? Did she think that my uncertainty meant that I wasn’t ready, or that I didn’t want this? Did she even agree with abortion? Surely she must have pretty strong views on the subject if she routinely volunteers her free time to a service like this. I searched for clues in her expressions and found nothing.
I was so helplessly lost and unsure, I wanted the answers to fall out of the sky. Of course, I knew that, ultimately, only I could give myself the answers, but that didn’t stop my wish to let someone else help me make up my mind. I was scared, emotional, totally confused and under immense pressure to make a decision that affected not only me. Stuck between two very difficult and important choices that didn’t really seem like ‘choices’ at all. If I had even just the smallest inkling of her personal opinion, or her standpoint on abortion, it would most certainly have affected my thought process. Although there is no telling what that effect would be.
From my experiences, I know how essential it is that counselling is impartial. So, Nadine Dorries’s proposed amendment to the social health and care bill, for any women having an abortion to receive advice and counselling from an organisation that does not itself carry out terminations, sounds to me like a good idea in theory.
I have no experience of private abortion clinics, I visited an NHS centre. But it seems that there are grounds to suggest a financial conflict for private abortion clinics to provide both counselling and also the terminations for which they are paid to carry out. At the NHS clinic, I did not see it as their job to counsel me, but to tick boxes and make sure I wasn’t having huge doubts. I did not feel that a complete counselling service was offered to me there. And so, I think it can only be a benefit to offer counselling not associated with an abortion clinic ( whether private or NHS), and to spread the word that these services are readily available should they be required.
But the government plans fall flat in practise. They themselves are not receiving impartial advice. Sitting on the board of sexual health advisors to the government is the abortion-opposed organisation, ‘Life’. We also know that Dorries herself has some strong views regarding sexual health. Abstinence for teenage girls is one way of reducing abortion rates, I suppose.
Under the proposed amendment, if I were to be seeking advice and answers as I was last year, I wouldn’t have to do much detective work to find out the incentive behind the government affiliated counselling. I doubt I would have had much faith in the government’s desire to help me.
Is it really that difficult to offer a truly impartial service?