An Auckland woman is bravely speaking out about her experiences of abortion, how the pill can fail you, and how she knows she made the right decisions.
Hannah May Lee, a 40-year-old retail assistant from Auckland, has had two abortions. And she’s speaking to us about it openly – without asking that her name be changed – because she doesn’t think there should be stigma attached.
“The first time, I was 18. I found out I was pregnant the week I moved into my first flat and started university. It never crossed my mind that I’d do anything other than get an abortion.”
“Because I was older, I felt more pressure from my family not to terminate, especially from my mother.”
The other party was her on-again, off-again boyfriend of four years. “We’d broken up but, you know, it was messy.” When Hannah discovered she was pregnant, he’d just met someone else. “He desperately wanted the abortion.” So did Hannah. “Because I never had any doubts about what to do, I had zero regrets afterwards about it [the abortion].”
At age 26, Hannah got pregnant, with a boyfriend of a couple of years. “Because I was older, I felt more pressure from my family not to terminate, especially from my mother. But it just wasn’t a stable relationship, and it wasn’t the right time or situation. I was close to completing my degree. He thought abortion was the only option. I was still a non-maternal person, with no inclination toward babies.”
Both procedures were performed years before abortion was decriminalised in 2020, meaning certain criteria had to be fulfilled. Two doctors had to ‘sign off’ on abortions, usually by saying the pregnancy would harm the woman’s health (this was largely a box-ticking exercise).
But before the public discussion around removing abortion from the Crimes Act, Hannah didn’t realise an abortion was classed as a crime. “I genuinely, honestly thought talking to the doctors was just the process of getting a termination. When I realised, it really shocked me. I’d legally committed a crime?” She wasn’t mad at herself, but with the system.
It was then that Hannah decided to be more open about her experiences of abortion, even posting a blog about it a few years ago. “It’s not a secret. My family members and my close friends knew. But I did feel nervous – and I still feel a bit nervous, speaking to you for this story – about effectively telling other people. The first time, that was mainly because I work with a lot of people who are quite conservative, or religious.” She told people about the blog via Facebook. “I had no negative responses. I think the people uncomfortable with it just didn’t read it. And that’s fine.”
“It just doesn’t come up in conversation very often. If it does, I’m honest about it.”
“Even before that, I’d never been dishonest about my abortions. I’m a terrible liar. It just doesn’t come up in conversation very often. If it does, I’m honest about it.” She has relatives and friends who have had abortions, but they don’t really talk about it.
“I think many women don’t feel comfortable talking about abortions openly because there’s stigma attached. I think that the less taboo this stuff is, the better it is for all health-wise: mental health and physical health. And I feel like not talking about it contributes to the oppression of women. Also, what’s happening in the US is really scary.” She’s talking, of course, about the U.S Supreme Court’s leaked draft of a horrifying decision that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade legal decision – and restrict women’s access to abortion.
“In New Zealand, people think it’s terrible, but some are like ‘oh it doesn’t affect us because it’s in the States’,” Hannah says. “Meanwhile I’m thinking about copycat stuff like the [Wellington] occupation of Parliament and the storming of the Capitol.” She’s not saying they’re equally grave, of course, but that what happens in the US can have a ripple effect.
Hannah is horrified that some U.S. states plan to take it further than banning abortion – including seeking to classify an abortion as a homicide, and criminalising emergency contraception (including the ‘morning-after pill’). “I can’t believe they’re classifying things like that as abortions,” Hannah says, justifiably mad. Horrifically, Missouri is seeking to ban the procedure that resolves ectopic pregnancies, with a penalty of prison and without a reason that makes medical sense.
An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the fertilised egg is implanted outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes. Dangerous and life-threatening, it eventually bursts in the body if it’s not terminated in time. Hannah has had two ectopic pregnancies. “Being treated for an ectopic is just basic medical intervention. I only have one fallopian tube, because the other ruptured and I was lucky not to haemorrhage.” So, yeah, this isn’t abortion.
Relief, not regret
Contrary to popular belief, many women look back on abortions not with guilt, but with the knowledge they made the right decision. Hannah did. “I just felt relieved. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if someone said no to either of my abortions. I was definitely not ready to be a mother. After the abortions, I did feel that people in my life expected me to feel guilty or sad – I think that’s the societal expectation – but I never felt like that.”
Both times, Hannah didn’t have the option of a ‘medical abortion’ (where taking a pill brings on a miscarriage). There was only the surgical option. “The physical process wasn’t painful, just a bit yuck. I got an infection after my first one, and my [physical] recoveries weren’t standard. But emotionally, because I knew it was the right decision, I was fine.”
The worst part? “I was told the first time to f–king wait until the ‘sweet spot’ of between 12 to 13 weeks because, apparently, the tissue is large enough that it should come away easily. Basically, when it went from being an embryo to being a foetus. Both times I’d found out at six or seven weeks, so I had to wait with it inside me. It felt cruel.” (Making a woman wait was very rare, so Hannah was unlucky.) “But I never envisaged a separate being because it’s literally some cells attached to part of your body.”
Like many of us, Hannah has heard, read, and mentally sworn at, online and offline comments from people who say abortions wouldn’t be needed if women just used contraception properly. But even if there’s easy access to contraception, that’s not fool-proof. The first time she got pregnant, Hannah had unexpected, unprotected sex just once after she’d gone off the pill, and the second time she was taking the pill and doesn’t remember a lapse.
When contraceptive pills are taken ‘perfectly’ – meaning no pills are missed – they can be 99% effective. With ‘common usage’, where some pills get missed, it’s around 92% effective. This means eight in 100 women taking the pill get pregnant each year.
“Contraception doesn’t always work,” Hannah says. “Situations aren’t always perfect. And it really bothers me that the onus for taking responsibility for contraception is put onto the woman. It bothers me that there’s an assumption that only women need to take care of it. Men are just as culpable.” Males, take note: don’t put your penis into a vagina without using or discussing contraception.
Hannah, who didn’t plan to have kids, now has two, aged 9 and 7. The first one arrived after her husband “got clucky. I was married, we had our own home, we were financially stable, so it was very much planned.” The second was conceived while Hannah was taking contraception. “I call her my ‘surprise baby’. Two under two was definitely not the plan but now I’m totally happy with having both of them.”
If there’s one abortion myth she’d like to bust? “That if you have an abortion, the important people in your life will treat you differently or won’t think of you the same way anymore. With all the people I really care about, it didn’t change our relationship.”