For the last forty years, an abortion in Sweden has been a legal right and each year approximately 40,000 women decide to end their pregnancies. Among students more than half of them would choose to do the same if they got pregnant today. However, that choice is usually accompanied by shame and silence, and then, how free is abortion?
It is summer and Sara is one among many students who is enjoying a break from her studies. Or rather, she would be enjoying herself if she were not feeling sick all the time. The nausea has been persistent for days, her breasts feel tender and she experiences a stubborn, dull pain in her abdomen.
The pain is similar to regular menstrual cramps, but she never gets her period. After some time, she begins to suspect something, and takes the courage and schedules an appointment for a pregnancy test.
If you got pregnant today, would you keep the baby? Swedish students were asked that question in a survey conducted by Uppsala University. Six out of ten students answered that they would have the abortion. Among the different reasons supporting their answer were not being in the right place in life, wanting to find the right partner, finishing one’s studies and finding a steady job.
In Sweden, around 40,000 women get abortions each year, and every second woman will have one abortion during the course of her life. It is most common for women between 20 and 24 to have abortions. In other words, there is nothing unusual about having an abortion.
When the current law on abortion was introduced forty years ago, it was an act towards ensuring women’s right over their own bodies and their sexuality. The law allows women to end a pregnancy up until week 18 for whatever reason. On paper everything seems clear, but is it really?
When Sara first recognises the mark on her pregnancy test you would think her first reaction was to panic, but instead she feels relieved.
“I was relieved that I could get pregnant at all, because I really want children. But I was still absolutely sure that I wanted the abortion”, Sara says.
“The timing was just wrong. I was pretty young and in the middle of my studies. When I do have children, I want to live in a bigger house and have a plan for our future”.
She had had a relationship with her boyfriend for four months, and taking her birth control pills. Having a child was not even on the map. To have an abortion did not feel like a big thing.
Neither did Sara feel that the symptoms she were experiencing were the sign of a baby on the way. Instead, she felt that it was something she had to get rid of in order to feel healthy again. Without hesitating Sara makes her decision, and is supported by both friends and her boyfriend.
She returns to the midwife two weeks later to receive the tablets that will help end her pregnancy, and expel the foetus from her uterus.
That is when the worries start to creep up on her. She is afraid of how it will feel to have something leaving your body, and not knowing when and how that will happen.
“It’s tough before you know what is about to happen to you. You push four tablets into your vagina, without help. If you’re lucky, the foetus will leave your body when you’re still at the hospital, but otherwise you just have to go home and wait. That part of the process really caused a lot of anxiety”, Sara says.
The abortion is completed at the hospital; however, the physical pain that Sara is experiencing afterwards is nothing she is prepared for. Neither, for how terrifying it would be with all the blood and the clots of blood that comes out.
When she gets home, she keeps on bleeding for another four weeks – long enough for her to go back to the hospital. At the hospital, they discover that there still is seven centimetres left of the foetus inside of Sara’s uterus, and she is sent home with birth control pills that hopefully will manage to push the rest out of her. Due to these complications, Sara suffers an infection and has to be on antibiotics for a week.
Despite all this, life continues and Sara starts studying again during the next semester, but the tough month has ended her relationship. Her mood swings, the physical pain and the complications became too much for both of them.
Sara says that her understanding of abortions has changed after that first time, and that it no longer feels like an easy thing.
“After my first abortion I said that this would be my first and only time. If I get pregnant again, I’ll keep the baby”.
However, two years later it happens again, despite new birth control pills. Faced with that same situation, Sara still feels that abortion is the right choice, but this time she experiences that other people are less understanding of her decision.
“Everybody kept asking how I felt and they would not settle when I said I was fine. In the end, this made me feel sad. Everybody expects you to feel bad. Almost as if they don’t believe that you use contraceptives, but I don’t think there’s anyone who would do an abortion just for fun”, she says.
The second abortion is less taxing on her body, but she still has to call in sick for a week due to the pain.
Maja is living in another part of the country. She will soon be moving to Lund to study, but her summer does not turn out as she had planned. Following a one-night-stand in early spring, Maja gets pregnant.
“When I first realized I was pregnant, I just couldn’t believe it. We were using protection. I had absolutely no idea what I would do. I was just about to move to Lund and start studying, and had no idea where I was going in life”, Maja says.
After some consideration, Maja decides not to tell the guy she slept with about her pregnancy. She does not know him that well and they have not talked since that night.
“Why would I tell him? Especially when I chose to have an abortion. His life wouldn’t change at all”, Maja says.
On the whole, Maja keeps her pregnancy secret for a long time. Little by little, she notices that she is starting to have feelings for the foetus. She keeps touching her belly and speaks with it.
For her, the decision to have an abortion is not without doubts, and she sees both a psychologist and a priest to get support. They both tell her that in the end it is her decision.
“Finally, I decided to have the abortion because I wouldn’t be able to give the baby a good enough life. If I have a child, I want the father to be involved as well, and I had no education and no job. If I would have kept it, it would only have been because I was selfish”.
Just like Sara, Maja was shocked to experience how much an abortion hurt. Before having the abortion, she thought that the psychological pain would be worse than the physical pain, but she was wrong.
“It hurt so much and there was a lot of blood. I was so nauseous that I threw up the painkillers I got. I spent a whole day in the hospital, and I felt very vulnerable”, she says.
Maja has brought a friend with her to the hospital, but afterwards she is completely finished.
When Sara and Maja look back on their abortions, they do it with mixed feelings. They were both relieved afterwards, but Maja still feels some sort of grief when she thinks of it.
“It feels like I have lost something. My life could have been totally different if I had chosen not to have the abortion. I want children and miss not having any. It feels like I chose not to take a chance that was given to me. At the same time, I know that the timing was wrong.
Sara has no second thoughts concerning her two abortions. What troubles her instead is how the people around her reacted. She thinks there is a taboo about abortions:
“In a way it feels like a failure to have an abortion. Society makes me feel guilty for getting pregnant in the first place”.
Both Maja and Sara feel that there are general ideas about abortions being to casual, like a contraceptive used by irresponsible women. Maja has barely mentioned her abortion to anyone, because she is afraid they will judge her.
Sara also felt that her family was disappointed in her.
“At first people just felt sorry for me. The second time they thought it was typical of me to be so careless. Many people think of abortion as obvious, as a legal right. But when it concerns your own flesh and blood, people might be stricter. One abortion is fine, but two is one too many.
Maja thinks that the norms around women and motherhood also contribute to her feelings that she needs to defend her decision to have an abortion.
“The one with the uterus is the one that is supposed to carry the baby and that is the meaning of life, more or less. If you don’t have children, you haven’t lived a full life”, Maja says.
That it is common to experience conflicting emotions after having an abortion is confirmed in a survey by Umeå University where women were interviewed about their experiences of abortions.
The survey showed that the most common feeling was relief and release, but many women at the same time experienced some guilt, emptiness and grief. A year later, however, very few of the interviewed still suffered.
Rosel Wällstedt is a welfare officer at the Women’s Clinic in Malmö. She recognises the fact that many women experience conflicting emotions regarding an abortion.
“The majority of women are quite able to handle an abortion, but might feel sad that they’ve had to go through the process at all”.
According to Rosel Wällstedt many people who come and see her are locked in a moral conflict and are too harsh on themselves, feeling guilty for considering or wanting to have an abortion. The conversations revolve around whether it is right to choose not to have a baby.
“They have some vague outlook on life where it is wrong for them to do it, despite not being religious, and they might say “I’m not against abortion, but…” There is a lot of guilt, shame and thoughts of punishment involved”, Rosel Wällstedt says and continues:
“It is not unusual that these women are embarrassed about being a bit careless with their contraceptives. The pregnancy then becomes a proof of you being a reckless person.
She thinks that it is very important for her to help these women understand that they do not have to be so harsh on themselves.
“Many people are much stricter on themselves than they would have been on someone else. It is okay for someone else to have an abortion, but not for them”, she says.
Roxana Aguilar is a midwife and works at the Women’s Clinic in Malmö. She notices that women of all ages and social classes have abortions, and for every possible reason. She also says that many of them express guilt about having an abortion, but these feelings are different in older and in younger women.
“Among the older women, many of them blame themselves. ‘Why did I not take enough care, I should have known better”. Among the younger women it is common to think of a sister or a friend who can’t have children and to say ‘why is it so easy for me, when she wants it so much, and I don’t even want to keep it’” Roxana Aguilar says.
She has also noted a great difference during the abortion process among women who feel confident in their decision and those who have mixed feelings.
“If you are sure of your decision and feel it in your entire body, then it’s usually easier to go through the process, both mentally and physically”, Roxana Aguilar says.
Rosel Wällstedt also emphasizes the importance that the woman having the abortion has had time to talk her decision through and support it within herself. She needs to feel that it is her decision and no one else’s. The abortion, then, is usually not very problematic.
Both Rosel Wällstedt and Roxana Aguilar think that people talk to little about abortions.
“If one person dares to tell her story, many more will follow, but my impression is that people in Sweden still feel reluctant about talking about this concern out loud. There is still a taboo around abortions”, says Rosel Wällstedt.
For Roxana Aguilar the struggle for women’s right to control their own bodies provides a motivational force.
“I want to disband the secrecy that breeds prejudice about who has an abortion and why.”
“There is something that happens to me far too often and makes me sad: a patient who thanks me after the procedure for having attended her so kindly. ‘But how else should I attend you?’ I sometimes ask, and then they tell me ‘I don’t know, but I was expecting a completely different attention’”, Rosa Aguilar says.
When women more openly start sharing their experiences, maybe then we will have a free abortion that feels free as well. Despite abortion being a legal right, there are still norms limiting women’s sexuality. We still live in a society where the woman getting pregnant is guilty for having failed to avoid the situation.
Many people are afraid of being judged by their environment, something that both Sara and Maja experienced. Additionally, they both felt that they were expected to feel worse than they did about the abortions.
“I almost felt guilty about not feeling worse”, Sara says.
Maja expresses a similar emotion.
“There is this idea that this is the worst thing that can happen to someone with a uterus, but I had worse things happening to me.
Sara and Maja are fictitious names.
Abortion around the world
- Freedom of conscience within abortion care is a question that has raised much debate in Sweden these last months. It means that nursing staff can choose not to perform an abortion because it is against their belief.
- In Italy, around 75% of all medical staff connected to abortion care invoke the right to freedom of conscience, which means that women will have to travel far in order to have a legal abortion, or to have an illegal one.
- In Europe, abortion is illegal on Ireland and on Malta as well as in Poland. Cyprus, Finland and Iceland have restricted rights to abortion.
- Still abortion is illegal or severely restricted in many parts of the world which causes around 20 million abortions to be performed under risky circumstances each year, killing about 70,000 women.
Abortion in Sweden (graphics)
- 1864 – Having an abortion is no longer punishable by death. Many women resorted to desperate measures, among them eating phosphor from matches.
- 1890 – Having an abortion could result in six years penal labour.
- 1921 – The penalty is reduced to fines or six months in prison.
- 1938 – The first law on legal abortion for medical or eugenic reasons is introduced.
- 1962 – The permits granting a legal abortion is hard to obtain, and therefore 10-20,000 illegal abortions are performed each year.
- 1975 – Current law on abortion is introduced, which allows free abortion without restrictions.
- 1992 – The first medical (non-surgical) abortion is completed.
- 1996 – Counselling after the 12th week of pregnancy is no longer compulsory.
- 2001 – Emergency contraceptive pills are made available in the pharmacy.
- 2007 – Foreign women are allowed to get abortions in Sweden.
Text: Karin Furenhed and Karolina Jakstrand
Photo: Nike Eliasson
Translation: Sofia Nordstrand