Almost half of UK abortions in 2018 were not the woman’s first. Rebecca Reid asks why a second abortion comes with more stigma than the first.

There was shock from all corners of the internet today, at research that found that a small number of UK women have had more than six abortions in their lives. The research was presented without any extenuating circumstances about these women, nor explanations about their lives and the coverage, which has been barely concealed horror, belies the enduring stigma that comes with having had more than one abortion.

As with so much of my education about the adult world, it wasn’t until the episode of Sex and the City where Carrie wrestles with telling Aidan that she had an abortion in her twenties, that I realised having more than one abortion was even possible.

‘I’ve had two,’ says Samantha, as they sit around the table discussing who has and who hasn’t had one before. It was the only thing Samantha Jones, famous for discussing semen and sex swings, ever said that shocked me.

The idea that abortions should be a one-off occurance seems to be pervasive across the board. Imogen, 28, tells Grazia: ‘I had an abortion in my mid-twenties and regretted nothing. But when I had a pregnancy scare a year later (a false alarm) I thought, almost before I realised I was thinking it, I have to have this baby because I can’t have two abortions. Because it was a false alarm I never had to make the decision, but I know that not wanting to have ended two pregnancies would have been part my thought process, which is ridiculous because I am pro choice.’

‘I felt fine about my first abortion’ says Daisy, 30. ‘I was a teenager, I was at school, it seemed like a no brainer that I shouldn’t become a mum. But then I got pregnant again in a long term relationship in my late twenties and I felt like I should have known better. I was on the pill and it was a freak accident, but I still felt like the most irresponsible person in the entire world. I didn’t want to tell the people at my appointment that this was my second one, as if they were going to think that I was stupid. I even found myself thinking of the word “slutty”, something I would never say to anyone out loud.’

Despite the entrenched stigma of having more than one abortion, multiple abortions are extremely common. Last year in the UK 84,258 abortions took place. That’s not far off half of the UK total (205, 295). So why is admitting to having had two abortions so much more shocking than having had one?

There are still all sorts of internalised rules about having an abortion. If you’re very young, single or a rape victim then you’re having the ‘good’ kind of abortion. If you’re lax with your contraception, old enough to look after a baby or on your second abortion, it’s the ‘bad’ kind.

In reality, the most common age range to seek an abortion is 25-29, and 20% of women who have had an abortion are married at the time. 56% of women who have an abortion have already had at least one child.

Alongside misconceptions about who has abortions, there is a ‘fool me once’ sort of attitude, which makes one abortion acceptable while two or more carries an enormous stigma. As women we’re allowed to make one mistake, but making two takes it away from the realm of mistake and into the arena of irresponsibility.

Until I watched that episode of Sex and the City, I had subconsciously assumed that women who had abortions were so chastised by the whole experience that they should swear off sex until they were ready to give their husband 2.4 children. But that’s just not how it works. Women go back to having sex after abortions, and sometimes accidents happen. Two in every 100 condom usages fails, the pill isn’t foolproof and the morning-after pill only really works if you’re yet to ovulate. There is also the fact that women are subjected to rape and reproductive coersion.

If you’re sexually active for a long period of time, the chances of you having an unplanned pregnancy more than once aren’t exactly negligible.

I dislike my own shock towards people who discuss having had multiple abortions, because I know where it comes from. It’s a deeply repressed well, mostly filled up during my Catholic education, which believes on some level that abortions are punishments for having extra-martial sex, and that getting pregnant means you are irresponsible. I, like so many women, still struggle to shake the shame associated with ending an unplanned pregnancy.

It’s easy to feel that we’ve finished destigmatising abortion, because famous women talk openly about having them and they’re broadly speaking avalible to women in the western world. But that’s not the case.

Abortion is not the preferable way to manage pregnancy because it is invasive, time-consuming and painful, but it is an essential aspect of female reproductive healthcare, and whether you have had one, two or five, it should remain a choice, and a choice made free from judgement and stigma.