‘The biggest achievement of the anti-abortion lobby is making women feel guilty’
Sam, 26, and Diane Munday, 88, had abortions five decades apart
Sam and Diane are sitting in Diane’s front room in Hertfordshire, hands warmed by mugs of coffee, chatting as if they are old friends. In fact, they have just met, brought together by their similar personal and political experiences, which took place some 50 years apart.
“Back in the 1960s, nobody talked about abortion. It was a word that was never said, never written,” says Diane. When her dressmaker and friend, married with three young children, died from a backstreet abortion, “it knocked me between the eyes,” she says. She thought of her again when, married with three children herself, she became pregnant at 29: “I knew the minute that pregnancy was confirmed that I wasn’t going to continue with it. I had reached my limit in my circumstances.”
Her choice, in 1961, was between an illegal abortion, and paying a doctor to say that a legal termination was necessary for health reasons; she opted for the latter. Diane’s abortion took place on Harley Street in London. “Oddly, I came round from the anaesthetic remembering the young woman who died. She was dead and I was alive because my husband and I, borrowing from my mother, could afford an abortion. I said to myself: ‘I will fight for other women to have the privilege of being able to control their own fertility.’” Diane went on to play a key role in helping to change the law: “And here you see me, aged 88, still fighting.”
She turns to Sam: “So tell me about your experience.” Sam explains, that after she suffered terrible side-effects from hormonal contraception she and her then-boyfriend tried natural family planning, which failed. “The first time I was pregnant, two years ago, I was terrified. I didn’t have a stable relationship, a good job, a proper home I could raise a child in. I was too young.” Diane responds, softly: “It wasn’t right for you.”
Thanks to campaigners such as Diane, who fought for the Abortion Act 1967, Sam had a legal termination at a Marie Stopes clinic. “I decided to have a surgical abortion under general anaesthetic because I was so afraid, but it was fine,” she says. “The only time I really felt scared was going through to the operating theatre. I started to cry, and asked someone to hold my hand. Then I was out.
“There’s still a lot of silence. I found the silence so suffocating, I decided to talk about it on Twitter. I was scared of anti-choicers harassing me, but within a few hours at least 40 people had messaged me, giving their support. It was mostly women who’d had abortions, saying they had never spoken about this before, that their family didn’t know.”
Sam is shocked to hear that Diane had a similar experience, half a century earlier. She joined the Abortion Law Reform Association (now Abortion Rights), in 1962: “The first public meeting I spoke at, I went in trembling. They were respectable ladies wearing hats and gloves. I stood up and said, ‘I have had an abortion.’ During the tea interval these ladies came up to me, one after another, saying, ‘You know dear, I had an abortion back in the 30s, I’ve never told anybody before.’ I wasn’t alone.”
Despite Sam’s openness, she still felt a sense of shame when she needed a second abortion after emergency contraception failed; by now, she says, “I knew the relationship was not one that I could have a child within.”
“Again, you made a responsible decision,” Diane reassures her. “I really think it’s the biggest achievement of the anti-abortion lobby: making women feel guilty.”
Diane drank only half a glass of champagne when abortion was partially legalised in 1967, and is still waiting to drink another half glass: she says she will not rest until it is legal for everyone. Sam, who campaigns for Marie Stopes, agrees: “The only thing left now is for abortion to be taken out of criminal law and be treated as a healthcare issue across the UK, including Northern Ireland. It’s for us to continue the work. I’m so grateful that you all fought so hard for us to have those rights,” she tells Diane.
Diane smiles. “That makes me feel very happy. There are only a couple of us early pioneers left now – you’ve got to carry that fight on for other women.”
Sam has tears rolling down her cheeks. “Do you want another coffee?” asks Diane, gently.
‘We’re hearing the exact same slurs and experiences as we did 40 years ago’
Roxy Legane, 28, and Nona Ferdon, 91, civil rights activists
Midway through their conversation, Nona Ferdon proudly shows Roxy Legane photographs of her standing with Martin Luther King Jr, pictures that were taken on a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Nona explains how, as a clinical psychologist working in Hawaii, she was part of a medical unit that joined the civil rights demonstration.
“The atmosphere was very tense,” she says. “Two weeks before, people had been stampeded with horses and policemen. We gathered around at a chapel, and it was the first time I heard We Shall Overcome. The second verse was: ‘Black and white together, we shall overcome.’ That was very much the feeling.” Her eyes brighten as she talks.
Five decades later, Roxy is battling racism – and, as a woman of colour, experiencing it. She works with anti-racist groups and runs the community project Kids of Colour in Manchester. Her own memories of racism go back to childhood. “My dad wasn’t welcome at my mum’s parents’ house. He was from Mauritius, and they were white, and thought he couldn’t provide what they wanted for her, and for me there was racism wrapped up in that. [Also] growing up in a predominantly white environment, being around lots of micro-aggressions.” She tells Nona that progress feels slow. “Last year I put on an event about racism in education, and a 13-year-old talked about his experiences of violence and restraint at school. Older people in the room were saying, ‘We’re hearing the same slurs and experiences that we heard 40 years ago.’ That is shocking and frustrating.” She describes being contacted by a mother whose seven-year-old, a mixed-race child, was spat at by a white child of the same age, and told she could not play with white children; and meeting young people of colour who, flattened by the oppression they face, say, “I just want to be white.”
Nona agrees that progress is slow. But, she says, “There have been tremendous changes in the US. I remember the day the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, people of colour circled around, block after block, trying to vote.” Before this, they had been prevented from voting because they had failed impossible, deliberately obtuse literacy tests that included questions such as, How many bubbles in a bar of soap?, she explains. While Nona still feels the outlook is bleak, with Trump in the White House, she tells Roxy: “Please believe me, there have been such massive changes. If you could put your mind back into 1950 – it was a different world.”
“I feel aware of how far we’ve come,” Roxy says. “But similarly aware of how much there is to be done. In the UK, we’re good at covering up our racism – but it can be seen in who is most likely to have poor housing, or be in the prison system, or unemployed, and that comes back to people of colour. We look at the US and think: how can they do that to migrant children? But we split up and destroy families here, too.”
When Roxy talks of how drained and helpless she can feel, Nona encourages her to talk, to take care of herself. “You’ve got to have someone you can sit down with and say, ‘My God, you won’t believe what he said to me…’” She adds, “I’ve tried to teach my grandchildren this: every day you live is a footstep in tomorrow, and a brick in the person you want to be.”
Once the conversation has drawn to a close, Nona’s daughter takes us to visit the 10 leonberger puppies they have bred. “Now this is what I call self-care,” says Roxy, as she holds one close.
‘I was 19 and I’d drive to work crying my eyes out’
Alex Evans, 45, and Paul McGregor, 29, lost their fathers to suicide, 18 years apart
When commercial manager Alex Evans, 45, meets entrepreneur Paul McGregor, 29, at the Guardian’s offices, it looks from the outside like an ordinary business meeting, all handshakes and nice-to-meet-yous. But in the room there is a tension, as if we are all holding our breath.
Paul, his voice steady, goes first. “My life was straightforward until I was about 18. I grew up in Essex with my parents and older brother. I was quite academic at school, played a lot of football. My mum and dad were childhood sweethearts. On the outside it looked like a happy family. But when I was 18, my dad just broke. His eyes were distant, he was saying things – we didn’t know what to do.” After taking antidepressants and being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, he killed himself on 4 March 2009, at the age of 45.
Paul now tells his story at events to raise awareness of mental health issues; but Alex, from Sussex, has not spoken at length about his father’s death before. “My family was broken,” he begins. His father was an alcoholic, and in the year before his suicide he lost his driving licence, his job, and the phone was disconnected. He killed himself on 29 October 1991, aged 44, when Alex was away with friends.
Before leaving for that trip, Alex says, “I got home after my Saturday shift at McDonald’s, and saw Dad asleep, slumped in the corner of the kitchen, absolutely paralytic, all the dirty dishes piled up. I tried to wake him and he went for me. He kneed me in the balls, tried to headbutt me.” His brother broke up the fight. “The emotion broke. I was outside, crying and angry. Something inside snapped and I said, ‘I’m never going to cry about this again.’” His jaw clenches as he explains what happened next: his father tried to apologise, but Alex slammed the door and walked out. That was the last time they saw each other.
Paul, the younger man, identifies the link between their experiences. “I think you’ve probably trained yourself not to show your emotions. But as you were talking, one emotion came through that I can relate to massively, and that’s guilt. As you were talking about what you didn’t do, I could see you starting to well up. It’s the same with me.”
Both men spent their young adulthood hiding their grief. “I was 19, and I’d drive to work crying my eyes out,” says Paul. “Then I’d get to work, and it was: ‘Everyone all right?’ and then I’d get back in the car and cry.”
“In the year or two afterwards, I was the archetypal angry young man,” says Alex. “I had my head shaved, a big gold earring, I was like a red mist on a hair trigger. A lot of people saw this horrible man when I was out – and then I’d be in bed weeping, with no one to offload on to.”
While Paul found a therapist, Alex has never felt able to. “My wife says, ‘You’re so unemotional, Alex.’ She doesn’t see that sometimes when she goes to bed, I get some old photo albums out, with the suicide letter. I can get quite weepy, and I feel very lucid in myself about my emotions. I can have a conversation with myself about how I feel. But when she walks in, I’ll freeze. We have no secrets and I love her dearly, but I still find it hard to let go.”
Both agree that social attitudes around mental health have changed for the better – but not around suicide. “There was definitely a stigma,” says Alex. “I always joked about it: when people asked how he died, I’d say, ‘The usual way – he stopped breathing.’ I used to hate myself for doing that.”
Paul thinks little had changed by 2009. “I remember my dad saying ‘Be careful near the local psychiatric hospital, because there’s loads of loonies and nutters that might be round there,’” he says. “If that’s what he was conditioned to believe, then that’s probably why he was silent for so long.”
When Paul asks how it felt this year to outlive the age at which his father died, Alex says that he felt as if a weight had been lifted. “I’ve almost found it’s freed me up a bit. I’m writing my own story now. I’ve got past the point where he was, and it’s uncharted territory.”
For Paul, it is talking that has been freeing. “But that doesn’t mean I’ve dealt with it – there are still times when it’s horrible,” he says. Alex agrees. “Part of me thinks – even knows, deep down – that you never get over it. There’s something about it that just wrenches you. But this is the longest I’ve spent talking about it. It’s part of the feeling that the road is opening up.”
‘Gay marriage is a symbol; it’s society trying to do better’
Tochi Onuora, 20, and Jean Thomson, 90, were both outed at school
Sitting in his host’s living room, surrounded by her books and newspapers, Tochi is telling Jean what it was like being outed at school, 70 years after she was. He was 13 and had come out to close friends when, suddenly, everyone seemed to know he was gay. “I had a support network, and people’s reactions weren’t bad, so I was fine – relieved, almost. But I don’t think that’s the usual experience,” he says.
It was not Jean’s experience: at 12, she fell in love with a girl of 14 at her Scottish boarding school. “She was going to be a musician, and if you had some time off during the day you could go and see her practising the piano.” Love notes between this musician and a few other girls were discovered in their underwear drawers. Her voice falls as she describes the traumatic school disciplinary process that followed, in which Jean was forced to admit they had kissed. “I was called as a witness. It was humiliating. She didn’t play the piano after that. It was a dreadful thing to do to her, and it was a terrible thing to happen to me, too. I never really recovered,” she says.
Jean feels an enduring sense of isolation. Tochi’s experience of growing up gay has been less lonely, he says, in part because of technology. “I have a sense of being different, but I’m an ethnic minority, as well, so I’m not unused to that. Then again, I’ve grown up with the internet, and if I hear something negative and I want to find reassurance, I’ll do some research. And then I can say, actually, I’ve read these 10 articles and seen this person talking about it on YouTube. I might see someone has posted on my university’s LGBT+ social media channels, and I’d feel comfortable approaching them in real life. It’s less isolating.”
Jean tells of a period in her life when she also found a community. While lesbianism was not illegal – unlike male homosexuality, which was only partially decriminalised in 1967 – it still felt that way. Jean’s voice lifts as she describes developing a circle of gay women friends through the Minority Research Group, formed in London in 1963. “I read an advertisement for it, and recognised that it was a gay thing.” There she met two women activists, Esmé Langley and Diana Chapman, who “had decided there were too many isolated gay women. Women from all over the country flocked there; it was really the beginning of the gay women’s movement.”
Jean asks Tochi how the history of the criminalisation of homosexuality affects him. “At school, I knew if someone said something homophobic, I could go to a teacher,” he says. “I think that privilege of not having to think about it on a legal level is very different. But there is still a feeling that this isn’t quite OK, and that means you might delay coming out, or just get very good at performing.
“Sometimes, at a time when some of the legal versions of discrimination have been addressed, it means, when you do complain about something, people think they resolved it 15 years ago. But I still I feel I can’t go to certain places. When I see a St George’s flag I cross the street, because I feel like that’s a symbol of someone who doesn’t agree with my existence. People think we solved racism and discrimination against LGBT people. I’m like, no, we didn’t.”
Their views differ on the issue of gay marriage: for Jean, it is “an unnecessary addition to the gay world. I don’t see any reason to be the same as people who are having heterosexual partnerships.”
“I was really happy about it,” says Tochi. “It’s society recognising that it hasn’t been good enough, and trying to do better for LGBT people.”
“I think things have changed quite considerably, but it’s still difficult,” says Jean. “I don’t think I could have had this conversation with a gay man 20 years ago – there would have been much more of a sense of danger about it all.”
Tochi laughs. “Twenty years ago! That’s when I was born.”
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