Student abortions: the resilient taboo


Credit: Kirsten Colligan

Credit: Kirsten Colligan

Lucy Morrow

I originally set out to write an article that shed some light on the ways in which having an abortion affects students and their studies at university. However, I quickly found that this subject was not one that people were willing to discuss with me, and in fact, I was told by many not to write this piece at all and to discuss a less controversial topic. This prompted me to change my angle: should we discuss the topic of abortion freely or should we just keep it to ourselves?

This past summer, two women in Ireland received global news coverage as they live tweeted their abortion experience. The women tweeted every aspect of their journey to England to undergo the procedure. There was a huge response on social media to the women’s journey, with many praising them for their openness and honesty. Supporters praised the women for lifting the stigma surrounding abortions and helping other women with similar experiences to feel less alone. However, they were criticised by many who felt that because the choice of having an abortion is so personal, they were traumatising those who are personally against the procedure.

In Ireland, where the debate regarding the repeal of the eighth amendment is in full swing, should we look to these women as examples for their honesty, or is this topic just too personal to discuss, even in a liberal student community such as ours? It can be argued that in Scotland, where abortion has been legal since 1964, the debate surrounding the issue and its subsequent “normalisation” has led to fewer people wanting to bring up the subject at all. As the University of Glasgow is a progressive university with a large and diverse student population, I wrongly made the assumption that this topic would be one that I could discuss openly with other students. However, the majority that I spoke to were uncomfortable talking about the issue and discouraged me from writing about student abortions.

I was told by one student that this topic was too taboo to openly discuss and that she “didn’t want to think about it” unless she had to. Another student I spoke to told me that although they knew friends and family that had had an abortion in the past, they would never discuss their experiences with them as they would be “afraid to bring the subject up”. Understandably, this is an extremely personal subject, but does our unwillingness to talk about abortions lead to the stigmatisation of the issue altogether? Our decision to share a subject with our friends and family is of course our own and should be private, but it could be argued that the lack of discussion of abortions and its after-effects leads to a feeling of embarrassment or possibly even shame.

I reached out to Erin Ross, VP for Student Support at the SRC for comment on the effects of student abortions and whether the SRC provides a specific support system for students. I was told that they don’t offer a specific support group but that their advice centres offer a free and confidential support for a wide range of subjects. Although the representative I corresponded with didn’t discuss the ways in which they believe abortions affect students specifically, the SRC did acknowledge that it affects each person differently. Both personally, and from experience within the SRC, Erin didn’t believe that there was a sense that abortion was a “taboo” issue within the university, but rather that it was a “polemic issue when it conflicts with faith or conservative values”. This raises the question then, over whether it is okay to discuss abortions, when it leads to fellow students being made to feel uncomfortable or even upset in what is supposed to be a safe and open environment within the university community. There is a fine line between being able to discuss different issues with fellow students openly, and discussing topics which upset others. Abortions go directly against many people’s moral codes and religious beliefs. I even spoke to one student who refused to discuss the issue with me when I merely mentioned the term in a conversation about this issue.

This is of course something to bear in mind when contemplating whether or not we should discuss abortion more freely. There is support for students if they go out and seek it, whether it be through GPs or through the SRC. After speaking to many students, I got the impression that most people believe these are the only appropriate environments in which to discuss your experiences with abortion and your struggles after going through the procedure. I can see where this belief comes from. As a medical procedure, it can be argued that you should solely seek support through the NHS and keep your student life separate. One student I spoke to believed that if we openly discussed abortions more, this would only lead to an increase in the number of abortions as the procedure is normalised more and more. However, in a 2015 study by ISD Scotland, it was reported that the number of terminations has reduced by 17.5% since 2008, the lowest recorded since 1995. I think it’s fair to say that even as society has become more liberal, this hasn’t directly led to more women seeking to having abortions.

There are many arguments for and against speaking openly about abortions. Although I think it’s fair to say that we are apart of a progressive university environment, I have found that students still view abortion as a subject too difficult to talk about openly and I simply don’t know how to go about bringing up the topic with others without making them feel uncomfortable.

I believe that this is something that needs to be addressed like many other issue that, in the past, people didn’t think was appropriate to discuss openly. For now, though, I leave you with this question; how do we go about letting young women know that they shouldn’t feel ashamed about having an abortion if we just aren’t prepared to talk about the procedure more openly?