Women over 30, married and established mothers account for a significant number of those who seek abortions, but stigma means we rarely hear from them. Photo: Stocksy
Lisa was two months away from going back to work after the birth of her second child when she realised that her period was late. She knew her cycle well. Her second child - a daughter who was now eight months old - took 18 months to conceive. That time of infertility was punctuated by two miscarriages. Lisa optimistically ignored her body's tardiness for a few more days.
When she did take a pregnancy test, she used an unopened test stick from the packet in her bathroom cupboard, left over from a time when she would have welcomed a positive result. "I saw the two lines straight away," she says.
Lisa also saw a fork in the road.
"We never toyed with the idea of three children. We were happy with two." Photo: Stocksy
One path was smoothly paved and represented the continuation of a life that she and her husband were content with. The other path led to uncertainty - requiring a new car and a bigger place to live that would need to be paid for with money they didn't have - and a prolonged period where Lisa would be elbow deep in nappies.
"I'm not a mumsy mum who wants to stay at home and be with the kids 24/7. I need the stimulation of my job," she says. "We never toyed with the idea of three children. We were happy with two." So after four weeks of deliberation, Lisa and her husband decided to terminate the pregnancy.
Lisa is not the 36-year-old's real name and she says she wants to conceal her identity because abortion is a taboo subject, especially for women with established families. But it is also common. Statistics from South Australia show that women over 30 account for a third of all abortions in that state. Meanwhile, Marie Stopes International Australia, which conducts abortions, deals with more than five times as many women older than 30 as it does women younger than 20.
In the UK, 53 per cent of women terminating their pregnancies in 2013 were already mothers. According to the Guttmacher Institute in the US, 61 per cent of women seeking abortions have one or more children. Despite the data, we rarely hear the stories of women with families who have abortions.
"Our view of motherhood is so idealised and misty - mother, gentle giver of life - that the thought of a mother subsequently setting limits on her capacity to nurture, and refusing to give further life, seems obscene," writes British feminist and author Caitlin Moran of her choice to have an abortion in How to Be a Woman.
For Agnes, 39, a married mother of three, the judgment began before she even made a decision. She did not know how many weeks' pregnant she was. She conceived at a time when she was breastfeeding and her periods had not returned. She was also using the withdrawal method.
"I couldn't have had the abortion if it had limbs," she confides. "I was crying at the ultrasound. The technician said, 'There is a heartbeat here.' We kept telling her we didn't know if we were going to keep it. She said, 'Of course you are going to keep it. You have three kids you can easily have four.' "
Lisa's friends had similar opinions. "I've been in discussion groups where the question of what would happen if you fell pregnant again came up. Friends said to me, 'Well, you're married, you would obviously have it.' "
Lisa's decision to abort felt onerous because of the struggle she'd had conceiving her daughter. "I thought that it was a surprise gift after all we went through with my second child. I thought maybe we were meant to have a third."
Anne Neville, director of Melbourne's Open Doors Counselling, has worked for 25 years with women who have had abortions. She says it's often the potential third child that upsets the family balance. "We get caught up in the idea of having two children to replace ourselves. A larger family often throws people off."
Neville says that some older women who have abortions regret it and may go on to have more children; others are initially fine but feel the loss years later.
"Often women with children do it quickly because they don't want to connect with the baby. Unlike younger women, they know the pregnancy milestones and, instead of talking their decision through, they try to short-circuit the maternal responses [to pregnancy]."
For those reasons, Agnes had her abortion just one week after receiving a positive test. Her husband didn't want a fourth child and, even though he would have supported her decision, she did not want to go through pregnancy while looking after three young children with a partner who was not fully committed.
Both women were alone in the waiting room prior to the procedure because their husbands were with their children. "Everyone had their partner with them in the waiting room. It felt so wrong that I was alone," Lisa says. She wishes there was less stigma around abortion so that she could have asked a friend to accompany her.
Half a year on, Agnes is still devastated. "We have three beautiful kids and they all look the same. I could picture what this baby would have looked like. It really haunts me."
Lisa, on the other hand, has no regrets. "I'm back at work. My daughter is older. Life is getting easier. It's not all about screaming babies and sleepless nights."
Occasionally Lisa muses on what her life might have been like if she had kept the baby and can't help thinking back to a conversation she'd had with her GP.
"I said to the doctor that maybe this surprise pregnancy is like a present. She said, 'No, only a baby that you want is a gift'."