When Melissa Madera sticks out her hand to shake mine I notice her wristbands straight away. “I had an abortion,” they say – a slogan that is also printed on the tote bag slung across her shoulder.
The 36-year-old New Yorker is determined to normalise talking openly about our experiences of abortion, and over the last two years has recorded the stories of almost 200 women for her website theabortiondiary.com.
Mothers, grandmothers, young professionals, teenagers, even a minister, have sat down with Madera to share their abortion stories. Entries include everything from Sondra, an 85-year-old looking back to an illegal abortion she had in the 1950s, to S.M., a Northern Irish mother who used to be anti-abortion. And it isn’t just women; men and couples appear on the podcasts too.
“Abortion happens every day, but it remains one of the least-talked about experiences in even the most liberal of societies,” says Madera. “There is silence around the reasons people make the choice to have an abortion, what actually happens in the procedure itself, and how they feel before and after.” The Abortion Diary is a platform to break that silence, and build a supportive community. She wants to make abortion part of the everyday conversation.
Statistically, abortion is very close to home for us all. One in three women in the UK will have had an abortion by the time they’re 45, and as many as 50 million abortions take place in the world every year – that’s around 125,000 per day. So why is it so rarely discussed in terms of personal experience?
“I think part of the reason is that women’s bodies are not talked about and there is a lot of myth and propaganda around what abortion is. People don’t really know about it until they need to find out, and it makes them uncomfortable.”
Trauma is a very commonly-used word when describing abortion but that trauma can stem from feeling unsupported and there being a lack of empathy, not just the procedure itself
She’s right. We are queuing for coffee on the South Bank in London and I can’t help but feel self-conscious. I glance around to see who might be listening to our very audible, very public conversation while she chats about the abortion conference she’s just been to in Belfast. “Abortion is my thing,” she says midflow by way of explanation, as if batting away imaginary raised eyebrows.
How many of us, if booked in for an abortion, would be upfront about it with all our friends and family, or with our employer if we needed the time off? And how many of us would ask – in any meaningful way – about an abortion we knew a friend or family member was having? Any mention of one is invariably prefaced with some sort of self-flagellating statement and the assurance that it was a very difficult and traumatic decision. Abortion is never talked about as a positive thing, even though hardly any women regret having one.
Madera certainly doesn’t regret hers, but it took her 13 years to talk about it. “I was 17 when I had an abortion and it was the one situation in my life that made me feel most voiceless and out of control,” she says. Raised by Dominican parents in a strict Catholic household, Melissa and her boyfriend had to stay in the living room and be chaperoned by her younger sister. Nonetheless, she got pregnant.
Her parents couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it, and it fell to her aunt to confront the situation. The boyfriend begrudgingly delivered cash to her aunt’s house and an abortion was hastily arranged within days, without much discussion. Madera remembers waking up in a small room and being sick, she had a maxi pad between her legs and was surrounded by other women. She has a mind-blank on the procedure itself; “it isn’t uncommon that the women I speak to have blocked parts of the experience out,” she says.
Once she left the clinic, the abortion wasn’t mentioned again. “It was a big secret that everybody in my family knew but nobody talked about, and I guess I tried to bury it.” But she carried the experience with her.
Years later she confided in a colleague, Liza. “Sharing what happened felt very freeing and I wasn’t alone anymore,” she says. “It opened me up to talking to other people about it too and I wanted to create a safe space for other women to share like I did.” Madera has since mustered the courage to have brief conversations about her abortion with her parents and her aunt – they’ve told her they don’t love her any less for it, as she feared, and that they think about what happened, and how it was handled, all the time.
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Since recording her own abortion story, Madera has travelled across the US to listen to other women’s stories and help them break their silence. Sometimes she spends hours with women, she gently listens and never interrupts, letting them take their time.
This summer she has been making her way around Europe. Dozens of women have been in touch. Having already spent time in Ireland and England, she has planned meet ups with women in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Ukraine.
Everyone’s story is different, some are very graphic, some are very emotional, but rarely can their experiences be neatly packaged as “good abortions” or “bad abortions”. “People look for a simplistic narrative; ‘I had an abortion it was fine’, ‘I had an abortion it was traumatic’, but they’re inevitably much more nuanced and complicated and conflicting than that.”
“Trauma is a very commonly-used word when describing abortion,” she says. “But that trauma can stem from feeling unsupported in the choice you have made and there being a lack of empathy around you; not just the procedure or the decision to have the abortion itself.”
The project – and her bag and wristbands – have provoked some online abuse and negative reactions. She has had three altercations over the bag and wristbands; on the New York subway, in a Floridian bank, and in Northern Ireland with a woman who turned out to be a politician. “Why would you want to advertise that you killed your baby?” the girl on the subway said. From the other two, she got hard stares and proclamations about God’s disapproval.
But by far she says the reaction is positive; "I'm not making a statement, I am stating a fact and it is an invitation for women to come and speak to me.” Sometimes they do, and they feel better for it – a little more empowered, a little less alone.