Is the UK really pro-choice? Isabel Grace discusses her experience being twenty and pregnant…
When it comes to abortion and the surrounding legal rights., feminism has been the driving force behind enormous advances in the UK. Abortion up until the 24th week of pregnancy has been legal since 1967 but it seems only now that people are starting to genuinely accept it as an ethically sound decision. My generation in particular have been paramount to this shift in attitude. We tend to be overwhelmingly in favour of a woman’s right to control her own body. But what about the young women who choose not to terminate a pregnancy?
I turned twenty this summer, just a few months after I found out I was pregnant. Depending on your particular definition of the term, you might call me a ‘teen mum’. Certainly, compared to the ever-rising UK average of 30 I would be considered incredibly young. In fact this year for the first time in recorded history within Britain, more women gave birth over the age of 40 than those under the age of 20. Despite my identity as a ‘young mother’, I feel this is cause for celebration. It’s great that we have reached the point where older women do not feel pressured by society to give up on their dreams of starting a family just because of their age. The whole idea of being ‘on the shelf’ and lacking the capabilities of their younger counterparts is being challenged. But, at what cost? I resent the thought that if it is now okay to be an older mum, it must not be okay to be a young mum. It is tiring to feel that, as feminism eradicates stereotyping of women in one area, people build it back up in another. Nowadays, while an older mother is seen as having a wealth of life experience, a fully matured mind and all the tools to become an excellent parent; a younger mother is seen as naive, a burden to their child and likely to have no ambition for the rest of their lives.
I felt it in the reaction to my own pregnancy; most of my own family and friends were supportive, but there were occasionally those who could not help but pass judgment. One of my mum’s friends consoled her on hearing the news, with the touching sentiment “poor you”. I couldn’t help but feel indignant when she then expected me to marvel at their open-mindedness because they had, I quote ‘come round to it’. On another occasion, I had a family member make sly assertions that ‘it would be okay in the end’ and that ‘everyone would help out’ with my child, because of course they would be greatly setback by my own incompetence. The most surprising discrimination I came across was where you’d least expect it; health professionals. The day after I had a positive test, I went to my local GP surgery to find out my options, and whereabouts I could get a sonographer to check how far along I was. The doctor who I saw ignored all my requests for an ultrasound, maintained the sombre countenance of someone at a funeral and left a signed form for a termination at the front desk. This was all in spite of my clear instruction that I only wanted information. A combination of embarrassment, hormones and anger ensured I sobbed my eyes out when I opened the envelope containing that form. From that point on, I became a little better prepared for people’s reactions. When my midwife informed me that it would probably be good news if there was something wrong at the 12 week scan, I smiled sweetly. Internally, I was eaten up with worry that my baby was healthy, just as many women are. Something being wrong at the 12 week scan was my greatest fear. However, on the outside I assumed the same indifference that she wrongly expected of someone pregnant at my age.
Public reactions to my now heavily pregnant state are somewhat more subtle, but only just. I find on the tube that women stare openly at my bump but not with the gooey eyed fondness I have seen them look upon others, with open consternation and disapproval at my apparent age and condition. There’s no effort to hide it either. It is understandable to have a reaction of surprise at seeing young mothers, because abortion rights and wider access to contraception have made them a rarity. Nowadays, when you see someone pregnant under twenty, thankfully they are usually there by choice. However, if this holds true, then why do those who advocate being pro-choice feel the need to publicly ostracise them for their decision? It was only yesterday, nearly seven months into my pregnancy and four since I had developed a noticeable bump, that someone offered me a seat. I was touched. It sounds ridiculous but for ages I had just put it down to universal selfishness that no one moved for me; gradually I noticed something different.
People didn’t ignore all pregnant women’s needs, they particularly ignored mine. There was often an examining glance at my bump and then a look at my face to determine age. What followed this was a coldly indifferent stare and an assumption that really at that age, regardless of my condition, I should just get on with standing. After all, it was my fault, wasn’t it? This theory seemed sadly confirmed to me when watching other pregnant women who were noticeably older get offered seats separately. None of them looked more heavily pregnant than me; often, they seemed several months behind me with merely a gentle rounding to their abdomen compared to my sizeable bump. Reading the experiences of other young women online, they too confirmed that scathing looks were not uncommon and that they often felt too ashamed to ask for a seat for fear of refusal. Why should guilt permeate our pregnancy? Why is there an interminable assumption of irresponsibility associated with us?
Of course there are always exceptions. There are those wonderful wonderful people who look at you without discrimination and see you only as a pregnant woman: one like any other who might benefit from a seat. There are those who congratulate you on falling pregnant as if it is the most wonderful thing in the world. These people make you feel human. They make you feel that tiny bit less guilty for the inexpressible joy you have about what is growing inside you. But this should be the norm, not a pleasant surprise.
Part of the problem is that as the social norm changes in terms of age, the stigma shifts. Older women used to earn looks of disgust, now it is younger ones. It seems we have decided that the way to combat teen pregnancy is to shame young mums. I am not discounting the struggles of mothers at any age who may be on the receiving end of prejudice. There shouldn’t be intolerance on either side; raising awareness about the struggles of young mothers is not disregarding the difficulties of all mothers. For me, the sad truth is that this fixation on age and the ideal number overlooks the true qualities required to be a successful parent. In every age group there are loving, caring and devoted parents and equally, there are also the opposite. Personally, I see striving for these positive traits as far more important than striving for sperm to meet egg at the perfect moment in time. I want nothing more than to be the best I possibly can be for my unborn daughter. I want her to feel certain in the knowledge that whatever prejudice surrounds her mum’s age, she has and always will be wanted.
Illustration: Nina Goodyer