It’s the 28th of September. The Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion – something that does not, in 2017, exist everywhere.
This particular 28th of September also happens to mark the one-year anniversary of my own abortion. The one that I had freely, safely and legally at a local clinic in London. Where I may have had to undergo a surgical abortion without pain relief, but where nobody (apart from the protester outside the clinic) questioned my choice or in any way made me feel judged. And yet, somehow, the only two people (apart from the clinic staff) who knew what I was up to on this particular day were myself and the other person involved in the pregnancy.
Today, the 28th of September, is the one-year anniversary of the saddest and most difficult experience of my life. However, in the year that same experience has empowered me, shown me my strength and in more ways than one defined what’s important.
I know I keep going on about ”today, TODAY”, and I swear I will cut the dramatics soon. Just one more thing – today is also the one-month anniversary of my last performance of a month-long Edinburgh Festival Fringe run. And the show? My now critically acclaimed one woman play about the experience of abortion.
(I spoke to Verbal Remedy about Mission Abort in more detail here)
Once I had told my mother, it was like the world opened
It took me a month after having discovered I was pregnant to tell someone other than my then boyfriend about it. And by the time I cried it out to my mum over the phone (Sweden had never seemed so far away from London) I had had the abortion two weeks prior. My partner and I were both uncomfortable talking to each other about it, and neither of us had been prepared to deal with my emotional confusion and turmoil following the procedure. What was meant to have fixed a problem, had become a problem.
Once I had told my mother, it was like the world opened. She told me she had been through the same thing, albeit years ago. And she let me know of a number of women in our surroundings who had as well.
In fact, one in three women in the UK terminate pregnancies at some point during their lives, and the worldwide figure is one in four. In other words, a lot of women. And I didn’t think I had known any of them. Because in 2017, it is still taboo to talk about what the experience of having an abortion is actually like. We are often quite ready – men as well as women – to express our thoughts and opinions on the legislation and politics of abortion. But even woman to woman it is still so rare to disclose the personal experience, whatever it may be, in spite of how many of us actually go through it. I found that both strange and frustrating, and so I decided to write a play about it.
I wrote it with support from the Soho Theatre Young Company, I got a wonderful director (Claire Stone), an incredible producer (Courtenay Johnson), fundraised four grand and went to the Fringe! Easy, right? Well…
Pick of the Fringe
While I had support from so many directions (people I haven’t spoken to for years came forward to help with everything from crowdfunding to sharing their own stories) from the very start, I was working with a topic that a lot of people – however pro-choice they may be – are perhaps not quite ready to hear about.
We had an amazing fringe run by all accounts, performing in Gilded Balloon’s beautiful new Rose Theatre venue. Dedicated audiences every day (and we HAD audiences every day!) and largely amazing reviews from press. We got long listed for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and were featured on Pick Of The Fringe within our first week. I am now in conversation with touring companies, venues and festivals who have expressed interest in the show. Even the audience members who had been dragged along to the show by friends or partners were all won over, or at least they claimed to be.
But we definitely did have some very interesting encounters during our daily flyering duties.
Handing out flyers is part of the fringe, and it can be an incredibly fun and rewarding part. And of course, with this project it is as much about spreading the word as it is about actually doing it. We did have some truly great conversations with people who encouraged the work, came and saw the play and ended up loving it. We also had people laughing in our faces. We had someone say ”I’m assuming it’s against abortion, right?”. One of our flyering team members was informed by a gentleman that if she’d been in Belfast, she’d be shot. Or one of my personal favourites, when I told a middle-aged couple about the show, and the lady turned to her (chuckling) man and said ”oh, you won’t fancy that will you” and handed me back the flyer without waiting for a response.
Of course, I had been very much prepared for people to not deliberately seek out a show about abortion during the fun fringe (though as it happened, some people did!) and I always knew it was going to be a tough sell. Not all people want to talk about it, and I fully respect that. But then again, even if you consider abortion to be murder, I personally would be inclined to think that it’s fascinating to understand the mind of the alleged killer (i.e. woman, because it is never the man who says he doesn’t want to be involved who is blamed). I mean, we watch shows like Breaking Bad without feeling that we are at risk of becoming drug lords – right?
Either way, I think at the core of it, one important reason for why so many people are unwilling to talk about the human beings behind the decision to terminate pregnancies is the fear of being associated with condoning abortions. Because in the discourse on pro-life versus pro-choice, pro-choice has somehow come to be synonymous with ”pro-abortion”. And ”pro-choice” has become the antonym for ”pro-life” (and on some level, we are all in favour of life aren’t we?!)
It’s crucial that we talk about terminating pregnancies
I often get asked, when I explain what my play is about, whether I am pro-abortion. My answer is, I don’t think any woman is pro-abortion. Pro-abortion is not a thing. Pro safe and legal access to abortion is a thing. Pro-choice to do what is right for us at any given time in our lives is a thing.
And this confusion between the terms is why I believe it is crucial that we talk about the experience of terminating pregnancies. The reactions from audience members – for example the young girl who gave me a standing ovation before bursting out in tears, the elderly woman who ran abortion clinics in her youth, or the man in his seventies who offered to help me flyer because he enjoyed it so much – confirm that for so many of us, this conversation IS important. And by deciding that it is, and choosing to talk about it from a distinctly female viewpoint rather than through the male gaze, we are also saying that women’s stories are important.
My play is deliberately unpolitical. It neither criminalizes nor victimizes the woman who chooses abortion, like so many abortion storylines in the mainstream media still do (Dirty Dancing being a surprisingly brilliant exception). It takes the woman seriously, it takes the choice seriously and it takes life seriously.
This is the story of a woman
No, the play doesn’t have a male hero (which a couple, so far only male, audience members have commented on). While the male perspective is interesting and not to be dismissed, it will just have to be a different play – because this is the story of a woman. A woman who could have been me, but really is any woman who has experienced the same thing.
Most people, including men, who have seen the play seem to be totally ok with the story being told purely from a woman’s viewpoint. And a big part of the reason for why I wrote the play is the frustration that it is such a distinctly female experience, but the actual woman’s perspective is still so often missing from the conversation.
However, I’m not sure it’s a complete coincidence that the only review that didn’t highlight the relevance or importance of the subject (and the only negative review we had) was written by a man. Of course, while the vast majority of reviews were extremely positive, no show will fully satisfy everyone (nor should it!) and we had a couple of three-star reviews alongside all the four-stars – but nearly all the reviews highlighted the importance of the topic and commended the show for talking about it.
It may be the case that this particular male critic didn’t feel he had a “right” to comment specifically on the topic. And the fact that he didn’t mention it in a short, fringe-length review won’t necessarily mean he doesn’t find it important (he may have just disliked the show, and that’s completely fine). But it is a shame if it’s the former because, while the physical experience is inevitably something that only women can go through, abortion is not just a “women’s issue” but a human issue. And being able to choose for oneself when to have a child is (or should be) a human right.
The reality of what it’s like for a woman to go through an abortion it is not something that men are ever really told about or encouraged to consider. Women are hardly even told about what it is like, so how can we expect men to understand the experience?
My answer is, keep telling them about it. Include them in the conversation and – if you feel able to – talk about the experience. Feel what you feel, whether it is relief, sadness or empowerment. Try not to feel guilt or shame (but I’ve been there as well). You don’t have to talk about it, but if you are a woman who has terminated a pregnancy – know that you are not alone.
So, on this day, the one-year anniversary of the end to what could have been a very different life – but still the beginning of something else – I think about the past year. What I’ve learned, what I’ve accomplished. By addressing my feelings in the way I did, putting them on paper and then on stage, I decided that my story – which is also the story of so many others – is important. Those two lines on the pregnancy test were important. And I will hang on to that test, which still resides in a special drawer, until I feel ready to let it go.
Most of all, I am telling myself that my choice matters. I matter. And it matters that I can make the choice.
Therese Ramstedt is a Swedish London-based writer, singer and performer who has worked across a myriad of art forms including film, theatre and music – as a performer, producer and PR – with venues including Barbican Centre, Royal Albert Hall and also at the Edinburgh Fringe and in her native Sweden. Humour, absurdism and song are at the heart of her performance-making, and alongside her own creative work Therese performs extensively as a singer including with leading alternative choir London Contemporary Voices. With LCV, Therese has performed with artists such as Laura Mvula and Imogen Heap, and features on the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Featured image by Joyce Nicholls