In recent years, women have shared stories of their infertility, miscarriages, postpartum depression and birth trauma. But there is one area of reproductive health that moms are still reluctant to open up about, and that’s abortion.
It may surprise you to learn that many of the women who have abortions in Canada—perhaps the majority—are moms. According to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, about 39 percent of the women who had abortions at Canadian hospitals reported at least one previous delivery, compared to the 35 percent who reported no previous births. (The birth status for the remaining 26 percent was unknown.)
This reality does not align with the common stereotype of who gets an abortion: a young childless woman who doesn’t feel ready to take on the responsibility of having a baby and becoming a parent. In fact, choosing abortion can be a parenting decision, as moms and dads recognize the needs (and limitations) of their families, balancing financial, emotional and medical considerations.
Currently, draconian anti-abortion laws that have recently been passed in some parts of the US and the anti-choice film, Unplanned (screened in major movie theatres across North America this summer), are amplifying misinformation about abortion that only exacerbate the fear and judgment that women deal with. On social media, women are finally encouraging others to share their abortion stories using the #youknowme hashtag.
The women we spoke to had varied reasons for choosing to terminate a pregnancy: the mom who didn’t want to go back to the baby stage; the mom who was already struggling to care for a son with autism and complex needs; the mom who had a late-term abortion of a fetus with severe abnormalities. While no one should feel they have to justify or defend their choices, these six women wanted to tell their stories to reduce the stigma and to help others going through similar circumstances feel less alone.
Most of the women who spoke to us didn’t feel they could talk about their abortions with their friends, and two requested pseudonyms or withheld their last names from publication. Only a handful felt comfortable sharing their photos.
Their experiences reveal that Canada still has a long way to go when it comes to accessible abortion care for everyone. Talking about our reproductive rights, and telling our stories, is an important first step.
1. Tasha,* Toronto, Ontario
Five months after I had my second baby, I got an intrauterine device (IUD). Apparently, you’re still supposed to use protection when you’re on the IUD for the first couple of months because you’re still fertile. I guess I missed that memo. I got pregnant two to three weeks after I got the IUD inserted.
I was overwhelmed. I had a five-month-old baby and a two-year-old. They were both still in diapers. We couldn’t afford another child, as much as we would have wanted to. We had just bought a new house and we were living on a single income, since I was on mat leave.
I remember thinking, How can I be holding this baby and be deciding to not keep this other baby? It was a very emotional decision. My husband was really supportive. He was like, “Whatever you want to do.” He knew we couldn’t afford it, but he wasn’t going to tell me to not have the baby, or to have the baby.
I called and made the appointment. I went to a clinic downtown. It was a pretty straightforward process.
For a few months afterward, I was in a fog. When I look back at those months, I feel like I wasn’t me—I wasn’t myself.
People who are anti-abortion argue you can just give a baby up for adoption. I don’t think I could grow a baby for nine months, birth that baby and give that baby away. I wouldn’t want to know that I have another child out there and I wouldn’t know them, and my kids wouldn’t know them. It’s the not knowing that would hurt me.
2. Laura Ip, St. Catharines, Ontario
My daughter was three and my son was five when I started to feel the nausea again. I couldn’t believe it. I had been taking my birth control pills religiously.
Having a third would have meant renovating the house and buying another vehicle. My marriage was failing and the expenses of another child would mean we couldn’t afford to live separately. Meanwhile, I had to consider, “How am I going to get through the day? How will it impact my kids to see me so sick?”
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was brutally sick with hyperemesis gravidarum. I would be crouched over the toilet and my son would come behind me and rest his head on my back. He started having night terrors. He was too young to verbalize it, but I think it was from seeing me so sick.
I was making this decision while my children were cuddled up with me on the couch, reading books. It was the most difficult decision of my life. But my then-husband and I both knew it was the right decision for our kids and for us.
In Niagara region, there were only two doctors providing abortions at the time. It was going to take a minimum of six weeks to get in, and I was around six weeks pregnant at the time. I knew the fetus was essentially a clump of cells. Anti-abortion people don’t like to hear that, but that’s the truth. I thought, if it gets to the point that I feel the fetus move, I’m not going to be able to do it.
I called the Morgentaler Clinic in Toronto and they got us in within a week. Toronto is a two-hour drive. When my husband and I arrived, we were at the right address, but there was no indication that it was the right place. It’s a bit hidden. I met with a counsellor. They make it abundantly clear to you that the counsellor is available at any point while you’re there. They asked if I wanted an Advil. Then I went into the room and had the procedure. Afterward, I had to wait around so they could make sure I felt OK. It took about three hours altogether. My husband (he’s now my ex) was extremely supportive. He took me out for the first meal I had eaten in weeks.
I tweeted my story to Sam Oosterhoff, the 22-year-old conservative MPP in Ontario who said he wanted to make abortion “unthinkable.” I felt, ‘This is a story that you need to hear, because we don’t talk about these things. You don’t let us talk about these things.’ When I had my abortion, I didn’t even feel like I could speak to many of my friends.
Later, I went to a talk by the woman who heads up the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Research, an anti-abortion group. I asked her, “What would you do to the mothers like me who are making these decisions?” She said she would send me to jail for life. I challenged her on that. “You would take a mother away from her two living, breathing children?” I asked. And she was adamant: “Life sentence for murder.”
Photo: Courtesy of Kayla Hill. Illustration by Corina Lo.
3. Kayla Hill, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Everything was going fine with the pregnancy. I was 21 weeks. We were going in to find out whether we were having a boy or a girl.
The ultrasound technician started asking me all sorts of strange questions, like, “Did your water break?” The doctor was brought in. They weren’t telling me anything. I’m a nurse and I know that when they’re not saying anything, there’s something wrong.
About 20 minutes later, my husband and I were called to a meeting. We were told the baby had no kidney function, and there was hardly any amniotic fluid, which meant her lungs wouldn’t develop. They said I was putting my life in danger by continuing with the pregnancy, because the low amniotic fluid meant I was at a high risk of getting an infection.
The health providers suggested we have an abortion, though they made it clear it was our choice. For my husband and I, the choice was clear. The baby would likely be stillborn, and if not, she wouldn’t likely live very long, and she would be hooked up to machines.
A few days later, I was admitted to the hospital for the abortion. They gave me misoprostol and then I had to go through labour. The baby was born stillborn, still in the amniotic sac. We were asked if we wanted to hold the baby. We have photos of us holding her.
There were a lot of other questions that I wasn’t prepared for. They wanted to know if we wanted to have the baby cremated or buried, if we wanted to do a funeral, if we wanted to name the baby.
I really needed to talk to a therapist to help me with all the decisions and to help me with the overwhelming grief I felt. They referred me to counselling, but I was told it would be two months before I could get an appointment. My husband was there for me, but he wasn’t there just to help me. He was grieving, too.
Right after the abortion, there were a lot of times where I’d be by myself and I’d just completely break down. Now, I can talk about it more and I can think about the baby without crying. It’s been hard for my daughter. She thought she would have a little baby. We have the urn here, and she talks to it sometimes.
We want to have other children. We’ve had genetic counselling and they say we have about a 20 percent chance of having a fetus with problems, and 80 percent chance of not. But before I had my daughter, I had two miscarriages, so I’m not sure those odds are right. I have to prepare myself to go through this loss again.
In the meantime, I’ve taken abortion doula training. I want to be able to help women who have to go through what I did.
4. Wynona Marleau, Calgary, Alberta
I was devastated when I realized I was pregnant. I would have loved to have another baby if things had been different. I absolutely love kids. But in my circumstances, it wasn’t even a consideration. I’m a single mom, and my son was 11 at the time. He has autism and learning disabilities.
I got pregnant very unexpectedly—I had been briefly dating someone who was already distancing himself when I realized I was pregnant. I didn’t tell him.
My son was physically aggressive at school and at home. He didn’t have any ill intent—he just had zero self-regulation and couldn’t tolerate most situations. There were times he would hide under parked cars. He required non-violent crisis intervention, which is a nice way of saying I had to restrain my child in a safe way, daily, for years.
Having another child would have been effectively saying goodbye to my son. He would have had to live somewhere else because another child wouldn’t be safe with him in the house. The child I have will always be my main priority because he’s here, he’s mine and I love him.
I was living on Vancouver Island at the time. In Victoria, there was a six-week wait list for an abortion. I needed the pregnancy to be over as soon as possible. I needed to be at full capacity to care for my son. So I got an appointment at a Vancouver abortion clinic. I took a sea plane and walked for two hours to get to the clinic. The physician administered an injection to halt embryonic development, and pills to cause uterine contractions. I remember how kind and compassionate he was to me. At home, I felt the cramping and saw the blood. I dealt with it very privately, while taking care of my child. I had to return for a second visit in Vancouver to confirm that the abortion was complete. It cost me around $1,000 between travel, childcare and the medication. I remember feeling so desperate. Still, I was so grateful to be able to access an abortion, and was lucky that I had the ability to afford it.
It’s incredible, the laws being passed in the U.S. now. Online, I see people saying, “If you did get pregnant, you can get an abortion before six weeks, so it’s no problem.” They think you can get an abortion on every street corner.
My son is 18 now. It’s been a huge struggle, but he hasn’t been in the hospital for over two years. He lives in his own apartment. He had to move out because his behaviour declined and I have a chronic condition that has worsened over time—I’ve had multiple surgeries and I knew my body wouldn’t be able to take his physical outbursts anymore. (I have an ostomy pouch, and I have a port in my chest.)
I visit him every day for three hours. He’s very intelligent, and he’s interested in biomedical engineering. He’s come up with really creative ideas for my medical devices so they don’t damage my skin. He wants to go to university. It will take a few years before he’s ready, but there is potential for him to do some really amazing things. He still has a lot of impairments, but he navigates life safely. He doesn’t hurt anyone. He’s very kind. He will give homeless people granola bars. He carries them around and he hands them out. He’s a good kid.
Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Lagoutte. Illustration by Corina Lo
5. Lauren Lagoutte, Red Deer, Alberta
I had my daughter when I was 19. That was a failed Depo-Provera situation. Turns out, that’s a recurring theme for me. I’ve tried pretty much every form of birth control, including the IUD, which resulted in a dangerous complication. I’m also allergic to latex. Nothing works for me.
Eventually I got my tubes tied, but in my 20s, doctors wouldn’t do that for me. I had three abortions in the ten years following my daughter. The first time, I knew right away that I wanted to have an abortion. I was in a monogamous relationship but we didn’t feel it would be a long-term thing. And I was a single mom, so I didn’t want to take from my daughter what I was barely able to give her to begin with. The second time, I was in what I thought was a great relationship. We were planning to have the baby, but the guy I was with became abusive as soon as he found out I was pregnant. There were no red flags before that.
The third abortion was with the partner I’m with now. At the time, we had been together for five months and we didn’t know where it was going. We both each had a child from a previous relationship. There would have been a nine-year age gap between my daughter and another child. We didn’t want to have to pay for daycare again, or miss out on spending time as a couple during the early years of our relationship. We made the decision together.
For those first two abortions, I was living in Vancouver. It was a day surgery, in and out, like having your tonsils taken out. It was a hospital procedure, and that really normalized the experience. It felt like something that’s part of health care.
By the time I had the third abortion, I was living here, in Red Deer. The doctor told me I could go to Edmonton or Calgary. That was shocking to me. People who need abortions have to find someone willing to drive them the hour and a half each way!
The abortion clinic in Calgary is in a house, and it’s a business. There is heavy glass separating you and the receptionist because, God knows, it’s a dangerous place. I wasn’t allowed to have my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, come in with me. He waited in the car.
A few years ago, I signed up with a surrogacy agency. I figured I might as well put my fertility to good use since this body really wants to be a house! I ended up carrying twins for a gay couple in Sweden. It allowed for me to really see what kind of strength I have, because carrying two babies is not easy. But they’re absolutely adorable and they’re happy and thriving. I didn’t expect it, but I’ve become best friends with the parents.
Abortion doesn’t need to be a dirty word. If I’d had more children, I never would have amounted to anything, because one was a struggle. Now I manage a clinic. I’m in a successful marriage. And I just came back from Sweden, visiting the twins for their first birthday. The parents told me I better come every year because it was the most fun they’ve had since the babies were born.
Photo: Courtesy of Anita. Illustration by Corina Lo
6. Anita, Montreal, Quebec
I fell in love with an English guy while I was travelling overseas. He came to Canada to visit me. We got married so that he would be able to stay, after knowing each other for a few months. I look back with confusion now as to why we did that. We were just kids.
When I found out I was pregnant, I was really thrilled. My heart told me, I want to be a mother and I’ll make this work. I think the hormones might be stronger for some women. When I told my husband, he gave me this look like his life was over. He convinced me to have an abortion to save our relationship. I really didn’t want to have one.
I went to a clinic at my university. The nurse and the doctor were both women and they said, “Yeah, you should have an abortion because your man doesn’t want it, and you’re young—you can wait.” They were not really listening to me or trying to understand what I wanted. I feel like they made their minds up about me and rushed me along.
My mother could see that I was devastated. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t talking. She just guessed everything. She said, “You’re pregnant? You’re going to have an abortion?” She told me that when I was seven, she’d had an abortion. She had just gotten a permanent job as a university professor. She had three children and she was in her 40s. Abortion was illegal at the time in Quebec, so my mother had to fly to England by herself. I knew my mom was strong—she had immigrated from India and raised her family while navigating a new place, a new language and a new culture. But I saw her as an even stronger person after she told me that. That must have been so hard.
The doctor who performed the abortion was very nice to me. She held my hand and she said, “There will be another time.” Then she left and I was all alone. A young, male orderly came in and sort of brutally put this giant diaper under my body and it quickly filled with blood. I felt awful.
I spent about a year and a half crying. Finally, my husband said, “Right, OK, have a baby.” We had two children. We made it work.
After 12 years of living together, we separated. If I were to live my life over again, I wouldn’t be with him again. On the other hand, I don’t know if every mother feels like this, but I would not trade those particular children for any other kids. I almost don’t want to talk about it because I feel self-conscious about how I feel about my kids. They’re just the most wonderful human beings. They’ve certainly surpassed their parents in every single way. They’re mature, they’re intelligent, they’re beautiful.
*Name has been changed
This article was originally published online in August 2019.