I had a secret abortion 60 years ago – Elisabeth Luard is speaking out now for the sake of her American granddaughters whose right to choose is in peril
- Elisabeth Luard says she had an abortion as a 21-year-old married mother of one
- UK-based writer explains why, how six decades on it is important that she shares
- According to the latest statistics from 2020, married women account for nearly a fifth of all recorded abortions in the UK
Yesterday, I logged on to my weekly online writing group, where we meet virtually to encourage each other to get some work done. Before we start, we share the task we’ve chosen to focus on that day. Unthinking, I tapped out: ‘Writing an article about my abortion.’ Then I stopped and quickly deleted the last three words before posting.
But why? How did I expect my fellow writers, mostly female, to respond? With a lack of understanding, compassion, outright disapproval? Did I fear they would judge me, think ill of me? Well, quite frankly, yes.
And it’s this, the fear of social and emotional censure, that has silenced me for nearly 60 years. Until now, I had not told a soul about how I ended a pregnancy as a 21-year-old married mother of one.
Six decades may have passed, but abortion remains taboo. We can talk about menopause, menstruation, miscarriage – even breastfeed in the Commons – but we can’t talk freely about the a-word. (I still hesitate to use the word – preferring termination as less likely to attract fury or blame.)
Elisabeth Luard (second from left) says she had an abortion as a 21-year-old married mother of one. UK-based writer explains why, how six decades on it is important that she shares her experience with her American granddaughters: L-R: Jessie Lee, 21, Ionia Tait, 15, and Bonnie Lee, 19
But at the age of 80, I’ve had a change of heart. The reason? The shocking news that the US Supreme Court last week overturned Roe v Wade, allowing states to ban or restrict women’s access to abortions. As a result, it will be difficult or impossible for women across the US to access safe termination.
Now I realise how important it is for women like me to spill the beans. After all, one in three women in the UK will have had an abortion by the age of 45. But our collective silence means it may come as a surprise that there are so many of us out there.
I completely understand it’s a personal matter, but now is the time for those of us who exercised the right to choose to speak up. If not now, when?
This is not just an issue affecting single teenagers, who could be dismissed as knowing no better, but grown women in stable relationships, and it’s important that others know this. According to the latest statistics from 2020, married women account for nearly a fifth of all recorded abortions in the UK.
Another reason what’s happened in the US touches me personally is that I have two university-age granddaughters, born and bred in New York. Not so long ago, we discussed the possibility that Roe v Wade was under threat. I told them my own story; and when neither expressed shock or horror that their granny should write about such a thing, I knew that when the time was right, I would.
But when I consulted a wise friend on the wisdom of – how to put it? – ‘coming out’, she worried about online trolling and warned: ‘Don’t do it! It’s not safe.’
Elisabeth Luard with her eldest son at three months old. Elisabeth was 21-years-old and married with her son when she had her abortion
Not safe to admit to ending a pregnancy six decades ago on the advice of two doctors? That did it for me – it was imperative for me to speak up right now.
The pregnancy that led to a termination was really my own fault.
Married in February 1963, our first baby was born in October the same year. At 21, with no proper experience of family life – father lost in the war, mother married again – I had full responsibility for a scrap of life of my own making.
Fortunately, I took to motherhood like a duck to water. Which was just as well since my husband Nicholas’s routine, as a nightclub owner and proprietor of Private Eye, continued uninterrupted.
I didn’t tell Nicholas that I hadn’t been taking the contraceptive pills the doctor prescribed – I’d assumed I was ‘safe’, since agreed wisdom at the time was that you couldn’t get pregnant when you were breastfeeding, which I did for nine months.
So when, at my regular six-month check-up, the doctor announced another baby was on the way, my reaction was total shock. Another baby when I’d barely recovered from the first. I burst into tears – pregnancy does that to you, anyway. ‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘It’s not possible.’
Abortion rights activists in Washington DC. Elisabeth explains that hers and her unborn child’s life would have been at risk if she had continued with the pregnancy
Doctors generally advise at least 18 months between babies, giving the body time to recover. Some research suggests getting pregnant again within a year increases the risk of premature birth.
But there was another reason for my distress. At my check-up had come the news that my blood group was Rhesus negative, with already developed antibodies. This meant my blood group and my husband’s were incompatible.
While this doesn’t usually cause a problem in a first pregnancy, in subsequent pregnancies it can cause a woman’s body to produce antibodies that attack the developing foetus.
Both my life and my unborn child’s were in danger. Termination of the second pregnancy – after proper consultation with a second doctor and a psychiatrist – could be recommended on those grounds alone. I could have chosen to continue with the pregnancy, but back then we didn’t have the medical treatment (these days a simple course of injections) to prevent the risk to mine or the baby’s life.
I didn’t hesitate. Instinct kicked in. I already had a baby and he was in danger of losing his mother.
Elisabeth is proud that her granddaughters are active in the fight for a woman’s right to choose what is right for them
Once my husband had signed the paperwork, we’d be on our way. This was, after all, a time when a woman couldn’t open a bank account, raise a mortgage or get a passport in her own right.
Shortly after, I was booked in as a day patient in hospital on the National Health for what was described in the paperwork as a ‘dilatation and curettage’, also known in the gynaecology department, where the process was routine, as a scrape-out.
In 2022, this would be called an abortion. But this was in 1964 – four years before the Abortion Act legalised abortions in certain circumstances – so terminology was important: doctors didn’t use the words ‘abortion’ or ‘termination’. Yet the truth is plenty of pregnancies were still brought to an end.
‘Make yourself comfortable, dear,’ said the nurse as she tucked my feet into the stirrups. ‘If Patient relaxes, it’s easier for Doctor to get over with quickly. And we all want that, don’t we?’ It took about ten minutes. Afterwards, there was a cup of tea and a biscuit and a feeling of intense relief. I had really believed that my beloved baby was in danger of losing his mother. Even so, I knew that what was, for me, a life-saver, wasn’t something to be discussed in public or even in private. Ever. Until now.
As for the effects of what was euphemistically known as ‘the procedure’… Physically – compared with the long, painful labour still fresh in my mind from childbirth – no contest. Emotionally? An overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I was again free to care for a baby already born and safely delivered into my arms.
Maybe I was saved from the enduring sorrow and regret about my abortion that some experience because it was early – eight weeks, give or take. Or maybe it was because I grew to learn from later experience that the loss of full term babies was terrible in a way that termination was not.
Elisabeth’s abortion was in 1964, four years before the Abortion Act legalised abortions in certain circumstances
Thanks to our incompatible blood groups, Nicholas and I had, in total, four live births out of seven full-term pregnancies, each with life-threatening complications. This was considered a remarkably good result for a family affected by rhesus at the time.
There were mothers-to-be in the waiting room with my kind of problems who lost them all. In those days, no one was offered counselling for infant mortality. No one had a wrapped bundle placed in their arms to grieve.
Perhaps, too, not confessing till now has saved me from the disapproval that might have made me question my decision. I was simply deeply grateful that I didn’t need a back-street abortion, nor had I been obliged to carry a pregnancy to term when my body wasn’t ready.
In the following years, attitudes began to change – in the US too, where in 1973 with Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court effectively legalised abortion. It was unimaginable then that 50 years later it would be overturned.
What’s doubly shocking is that my life-saving procedure, sanctioned by two doctors, couldn’t now happen in parts of the US.
In those states that immediately implemented the Supreme Court’s ruling, going ahead could land me in jail, along with my husband and every friend, doctor, nurse or taxi driver who might have facilitated this ‘crime’.
I’m proud that my granddaughters are active in the fight for a woman’s right to choose. And the men who march beside them are much more involved in family life than their fathers and grandfathers ever were.
If my granddaughters are brave enough to nail their colours to the mast, then so should I.