pregnancy

Janice had an illegal abortion at 15. To 'teach her a lesson', the doctor added a 'punishment'.

This post deals with sexual assault and might be triggering for some readers.

Janice* is a 60-something Melbourne mother and grandmother with a loving husband, a beautiful family, friends, and before retiring due to injury, a rewarding career working with troubled teenagers.

But behind her easy-going and welcoming exterior, there’s a secret she’s kept for 47 long years, and she’s decided it’s time for people to know.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a national conversation around a bill that has been put before the New South Wales parliament to decriminalise abortion.

On one side, those who care about the health and wellbeing of women, and on the other side, those who don’t. This is no-doubt a polarising way to describe the abortion debate, but after you hear Janice’s story, you’ll see the devastating effect keeping abortion illegal has on girls and women that you’ve probably never considered.

I found Janice through a powerful social media campaign which followed the submission of the abortion bill. Countless women of all ages and backgrounds who had had illegal abortions were adding their names to a growing list, daring the authorities to #ArrestUs.

“I want to tell it [my story] for all the other girls who can’t,” she says. “And for the ones who died.”

Janice had an illegal abortion in Sydney back in the early ‘70s. She was just 15 years old. She was just a girl, but facing a very adult situation.

Watch: Best-selling author Marian Keyes on abortion. Post continues after video. 

Growing up in a small country town, Janice knew about unplanned teen pregnancies. The combination of a lack of education around safe sex practices and a the existence of a single town chemist where teens were too embarrassed to buy condoms meant that girls – at least one or two a year by Janice’s recollection – would often drop out of school to become mothers.

Like everyone, Janice thought it wouldn’t happen to her. She had her first boyfriend, and she enjoyed sex, but they were responsible and he always had condoms.

“Except this one time, and that was the one time I got pregnant,” she said.

Now, in the early ‘70s you couldn’t walk into a pharmacy or a supermarket and pick up a pregnancy test off the shelf and covertly sneak it through a self-service checkout like you can now. Pregnancies needed to be confirmed by a doctor who would then make the arrangements for that baby to be born.

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And this is where Janice’s story differs from the other girls she knew. While her family wasn’t wealthy, they were comfortably upper-middle class, which meant she had options. Her mother was a nurse with a practical mind and good connections, who arranged the pregnancy test under a pseudonym – avoiding the family’s strict Catholic GP – and once the pregnancy was confirmed, immediately began researching options for daughter.

At this time in Australia, abortion was very much illegal. Not just illegal in the sense it is today where it’s a grey area and if the mother’s physical or mental health is in danger and two doctors sign off on it, you can get a safe termination. Aside from backyard abortions or “coat hanger jobs” as Janice’s now-husband recalls them being referred to, it was not done. There was no grey area.

But Janice knew that she could not have a baby, nor keep one. Not only because she was a bright, intelligent girl with aspirations to get out of country NSW and go to university, but because she knew enough from the girls who had been forced to give birth before her.

“Those other girls just didn’t have a choice,” she says.  “I met a girl who went off and gave birth, and they used to make them suffer through [the birth] as punishment. There were no epidurals; there was no help. No gas.”

At this point, Janice begins to cry.

“I’m crying for my sisters.

“They made them suffer, so they’d know how wrong; how bad they’d been, and they wouldn’t do it again.

“There was no way I could keep a child.”

Aside from the horror stories she’d heard, Janice’s home life was volatile. With an abusive father, she knew that if she kept her baby, not only would she be stuck in that life, but her mother would also feel compelled to stay and help her raise it, forcing her to remain in a toxic marriage.

“I’d rather have died,” she said of the idea of remaining in that life.

Janice’s mother set to work in figuring out how she could best help her daughter. Her first idea was to send her to London where abortion was legal, however it would have meant huge sacrifices for the family and her father didn’t allow it. Her next suggestion made Janice’s blood run cold.

“We’ll send her to a mother’s home in Sydney.”

Janice’s mother was referring to the kind of Catholic home for pregnant women – usually young girls, where they were hidden away so their families wouldn’t suffer the shame of a daughter pregnant out of wedlock; where the girls were forced to remain until they gave birth, with their babies often taken away and adopted by force afterwards.

“I know what they did in those homes”, Janice shudders.

“I know – and this is hearsay so you can’t quote it – but I know a girl who went and the doctor who examined them every month sexually assaulted them as he examined them.

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“This was normal, and the nuns would not listen to them because they were bad girls, and ‘he’s a good doctor and a wonderful man who is donating his time to the cause’.

“And then they [the babies] were just ripped away from them.

“And the whole time they were treated like really… bad, bad girls and just terrible, unworthy human beings.

“Good girls didn’t get pregnant.”

Janice’s mother wasn’t the warm, maternal type, but she saw immediately that the mothers’ home wasn’t going to be an option, and decided to use her medical connections to find an alternative.

“She didn’t go to our GP who was a very strict Catholic man and would have just been horrified”, Janice said.

“She went to another doctor in another town that she knew about, and he did the research, and he gave her the name of a person in Sydney.”

As she recalls, it was a Thursday or a Friday when she found out she was pregnant, and by Monday she was on a flight to Sydney with her mother. Just stop for a moment and imagine being 15 years old. You’ve just discovered you’re pregnant, and over the course of two or three days, you’ve been told you’re going to London, then not going to London. Then you’re going to a Catholic home for unwed mothers. And now you’re on a plane with your mother, not knowing what awaits you but knowing you’re committing a crime.

“She said ‘my career will end, and so will the doctor’s who gave me the information. You cannot tell anyone, ever, because this is completely illegal.’”

After landing in Sydney, they went to stay with a friend of her mother who was also a nurse, who reassured Janice that everything would be okay, and it would be over soon. And then she was taken to a house.

If you’re picturing a modern clinic with health centre signage out front, and perhaps a swathe of protesters with placards and rosary beads, that wasn’t what they looked like in the ‘70s.

“It just looked like any house, there was nothing on the outside, no evidence that it was in any way medical or anything else,” Janice recalls.

“It was just a house.”

With a mother who was a nurse, Janice was not there for a “backyard abortion” or a “coat hanger job”. Her mother had done the research to ensure that whilst certainly illegal, the procedure would be performed by a legitimate doctor, which no doubt helped ease both their minds.

But Janice was soon to discover that, like the girls she had heard about from the mothers’ homes, there were doctors who would take advantage of the power they had over desperate young girls and women, safe in the knowledge they would not be reported – because after all, what these girls and women were doing was a crime too.

After taking some background from Janice and her mother, Janice was taken into a back room which was set up like a makeshift operating theatre with a table, stirrups, a big overhead light, and a tray of instruments for a surgical abortion (D&C), while her mother was left to wait in the reception area.

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“I was honestly so terrified I didn’t even look at what instruments,” she said.

“I didn’t look at anything but I just saw that table and the stirrups and I was 15.

“I was very, very shy. I got thrush once and I wanted them to put me under to examine me to say I had thrush, because in those days, you couldn’t get over the counter Canesten; you had to go to a doctor who had to examine you and then confirm ‘yes, you’ve got thrush, here’s a script, go and get it.’

“I was so horrified at the thought of a doctor looking at me down there that I asked to be anaesthetised and then I insisted we go to another town, to a doctor I didn’t know and then I just died of embarrassment, but at least I didn’t see him again.

“I would not go to my GP who I had to face for colds. That’s how embarrassed I was. And I’m sure there are 15-year-olds who would be exactly the same now. And that’s me. That’s who I was. So I saw the stirrups and I just wanted to die. I started trembling and… this will just take a little…”

At this point, Janice starts to cry at the memory, and I know she’s reliving that moment as that shy, terrified young girl. After a minute, she’s ready to continue.

“It was two nurses in the room and the doctor,” she explains.

“One of the nurses said to me, ‘go in there and take all your clothes off.’

“And I just didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal, so I did. I went and took all my clothes off and they didn’t give me a gown or anything, and that nurse was sent out of the room then. So she left.

“So I walked out completely naked and I was so humiliated. And the nurse said to me, ‘this is what you get when you’re a slut.’

“And she just looked at me with such a look of contempt and also a smirk, which I didn’t understand at that time, but I was about to find out.”

This is what you get when you’re a slut. Words directed at a child, terrified, naked, alone, and these are the words from the medical professional whose job is actually caring. It gets worse.

“So he [the doctor] said, ‘get on the table and put your legs in the stirrups.’ I was still completely naked.

“So I did that. And I just wanted my mother, but she was in the other room. And I was so terrified. Then the nurse held me down. She leaned across the top part of my body and held me down.

“And he didn’t rape me, but he molested me. He put things inside me that weren’t meant to go inside me. So he raped me with objects.

“And she [the nurse] just kept saying ‘this is what you get when you’re a slut’.

“And I wasn’t a slut. There’s no such thing as a slut. But in those days that word meant so much contemptuously; so much.

“She held me down while he did that and she just kept looking at me and telling me I was a slut and I deserved it and this would make me never do it again.

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“And I was sobbing and begging them, ‘I’ll never do it again; I’ll never have sex again as long as I live, please stop.’ And then he stuck a needle in me and that was it, I went out.

When Janice woke from the ordeal, she was still naked, on the table, and in a lot of pain. They gave her no pain relief; not even a Panadol, and the nurse told her to get dressed and go to her mother.

“She didn’t even help me up. I was just in a daze. I just wanted to die.”

Physically, Janice recovered well from the abortion. Emotionally, she was scarred. She finished school, but broke up with her boyfriend and didn’t have sex again until she was in uni. After moving to Melbourne, she sought help from a psychologist and a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It wasn’t until years later that she was finally able to have and enjoy penetrative sex with the man who became her husband, who she describes as her “rock”.

Janice owes the success of her life to date to that abortion, and despite the trauma she went through, doesn’t regret it for a moment. But while she experienced relief from having the procedure, she acknowledges there’s a sense of loss that comes along with it.

“I could tell you right now how old my child would be, and there isn’t a time that I don’t know that,” she explains.

What you’ve just read, and the horror Janice experienced is breathtaking, but if you need any further testament to her strength, her concerns are for the girls and women who had it worse. And that’s why she wants to tell her story now, and see abortion decriminalised.

“People need to know that you have no power when it’s illegal,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion.

“That you can’t do anything; say anything. I didn’t even tell my mum.”

In fact, Janice never told anyone what happened to her in that suburban makeshift operating theatre. She never knew the name of the doctor who assaulted her before changing the course of her future, and believes he would no longer be alive, being around 50 at the time.

However, throughout her career she has helped countless teens navigate their own accidental pregnancy and sexual health crisis, helping to break the cycle of silence and shame.

At the time of writing, the NSW abortion bill has passed the State Parliament’s Lower House, with 59 in favour to 31 against.*

‘Janice’s’ name has been changed to protect her privacy. A stock image has been used.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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