Discovering she was pregnant at the age of 14, Shanice Tomlinson felt so terrified of telling her mum, she couldn’t bring herself to utter the words. Instead, she wrote them in a text message which she handed to her after admitting she needed to divulge something big.
“I had a feeling I was pregnant because my body felt different, but my mum didn’t know I was sexually active,” she recalls.
“I booked an appointment at a sexual health clinic and when the doctor confirmed I was pregnant, I was really scared.
“I knew abortion was the right thing for me, even though I didn’t really want to have an abortion. I was terrified because I didn’t know how my mum would react and I didn’t want to disappoint her. I was the eldest of three children and we’d never even had the birds and the bees talk.”
Despite Shanice’s dread and misgivings, after an initial reaction of shock and disbelief, her mum was calm and supportive. She accompanied her to the appointments and was there waiting for her when she woke up after the abortion.
However, Shanice says that after that day, her mum never mentioned the abortion again and she herself never talked about it or confided in anyone, instead burying her feelings as she felt silenced by the fears of what people would think of her.
It is only now, a decade later, that she is finally speaking out about her abortion. She reveals talking about it has lifted a “huge weight off her shoulders” and unleashed emotions she bottled up for too long.
Shanice, who describes her heritage as three-quarters Jamaican and one-quarter British, is sharing her story with i as she wants other women to know they’re not alone and wants to encourage them to speak their truth.
The 24-year-old also believes the stigma associated with abortion is even worse for many women and girls from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities as cultural barriers forces the issue to be even more hidden.
“Being black definitely played a part in my silence. I didn’t want the cultural judgement or to be seen a certain way. In many black and Asian communities, things in families are kept very in-house and people don’t discuss them,” she said.
“This makes abortion an even more difficult issue for these women and they feel completely silenced. I was lucky that I was able to speak with my mum and have her support. However, that’s not typical in a black household.”
Shanice’s experience of feeling silenced by her abortion is not uncommon, according to Edem Ntumy, whose research was recently published in the paper ‘Abortion in the UK, Experiences of African, Caribbean and Asian people’.
Ntumy, co-director for Decolonising Contraception, a not-for-profit community interest company, told i: “Many women from these communities are told abortion is a bad thing and there are myths such as how they won’t be able to have children in the future. This makes it really difficult for people to talk about their experiences.”
She revealed that participants of African, Caribbean and Asian descent who took part in the research felt strongly that the way to break the stigma of abortion is to have more conversations led by people with “faces like them”.
“It resonates with people when someone who looks like them talks about their experiences of abortion,” explains Ntumy. “It shows people their abortion experiences are mirrored elsewhere.”
Abortion Facts and Figures
1 in 3 women in the UK will have an abortion, according to Abortion Rights
85 per cent of the population support the right to choose an abortion, YouGov polling shows
In 2021, there were 214,256 abortions for women resident in England and Wales, the highest number since the Abortion Act was introduced
The age standardised abortion rate for residents in 2021 is 18.6 per 1,000 women, the highest rate since the Abortion Act was introduced
However, the abortion rate for women aged under 18 has continued to decrease from 15.0 in 2011 to 6.9 in 2020 and further decreased to 6.4 per 1,000 in 2021
Abortion is still in the criminal code. The Abortion Act 1967 allows abortion in certain circumstances including sign off from two doctors. The 1967 Abortion Act renders lawful activities that would otherwise constitute a crime under the Offences Against the Person Act 1961 which makes it a crime for a woman to ‘procure a miscarriage’ or for another person to help her to do so
Manna Mostaghim, a volunteer at Abortion Rights who also used to work with Decolonising Contraception, tells i: “Abortion stigma in African, Caribbean and Asian communities is created by culture, religion and silence.
“Young black and Asian women don’t broadcast their abortions. This is because they think abortions don’t happen to ‘good, chaste girls who want to get married’ within the community.
“Stigma could slowly be dismantled if more black and Asian women could feel comfortable in coming forward and leading the conversation on abortion.”
Kerry Abel, chair of Abortion Rights, adds: “One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime and we know that all types of women and pregnant people have abortions.
“Everyone loves someone who has an abortion so we should be as supportive as possible, especially now, when the news about Roe vs Wade is forcing a lot of us to think about abortion care and what would happen if we lost the right to safe, free and legal abortion.”
Shanice says she finally found the courage to talk about her abortion for the first time this year when she wrote about her experience on Instagram and hosted an online talk.
“I was overwhelmed by how many women commented on it and privately messaged me sharing their own stories and telling me they felt the same way and had been silenced by their abortions.
“For a long time, my abortion felt like my deepest, darkest secret. After I finally spoke about it, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders that I didn’t know was there. I cried so much after hearing other women’s voices and experiences. I finally got to have the moments I needed at the time of the abortion.”
Shanice, a senior sales executive who now lives with her partner in south Croyden and has a two-year-old daughter Milan, says she has never regretted having an abortion.
“I love my daughter Milan, but even becoming a mum at the age of 22 was hard work as having a baby for the first time is difficult at any age. I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a 14-year-old,” she says.
“For me, I knew abortion was the right thing because I was just way too young to bring a child into the world.”
Shanice became pregnant at 14 by a boy the same age as her who she lost her virginity to. “We were never officially boyfriend and girlfriend, but we were sexually active together on and off for a couple of years,” she explains.
“We started having sex shortly after my 14th birthday and we didn’t use protection.”
Shanice had desperately hoped she wasn’t pregnant at the time and when it was confirmed, went through a gauntlet of emotions. Following the abortion, she recalls feeling delated and numb.
“It was done, but I didn’t feel happy about it. I was glad I didn’t have to deal with the pregnancy any more, but I felt guilty and sad I had to go through that.”
She was also gripped with terror at the thought of anyone else finding out. “I was really ashamed and embarrassed and scared of anyone at school finding out,” she says.
“I remember I had to give my head of year a note explaining my time off school which basically said I’d had a termination. I handed it to him and didn’t even wait for his reaction.
“I didn’t even want anyone else in my family to find out as I thought they would judge me and think I was fast for my age. But I wasn’t sleeping around – it was just that one person.”
Even years later, she still hadn’t talked about it, despite the topic of abortion coming up in conversations.
“Once the abortion had happened, it was just pushed under the carpet. I feel I never got to talk it through with anyone or express the emotions I was feeling,” she says.
“I internalised it all and buried it within myself. Every so often, I’d get thoughts such as: ‘I’d have a three-year-old now’, but I’d quickly suppress them.
“I felt silenced by my abortion at 14 and associated it with a lot of shame. A big part of that was how young I was as I didn’t want people to look at me a certain way because I’d lost my virginity so young.
“But a lot of it was to do with how society sees abortion and I didn’t want to be judged. I felt a lot of guilt at that age as I knew there were so many people struggling to have children and there I was, ending a pregnancy.
“However, I don’t feel this way now. I now realise having a baby is a choice and isn’t something that should be taken lightly.
“When it comes to abortion, I feel there doesn’t need to be a major reason why you want one. If you don’t want a child or aren’t ready at that time, that’s reason enough and a choice every woman should be free to make.”
Shanice is urging other women not to feel silenced and to speak out about their abortion experiences. “I feel it’s such an important conversation to have because you never know who it resonates with.
“I feel if I’d been able to read about and hear other people’s experiences with abortion when I was 14, it would have really helped me and I wouldn’t have suppressed so many emotions.
“I know it’s harder for women from some cultures, but I feel more women need to speak openly and freely about abortion and not feel ashamed or embarrassed to speak their war truth.
“By sharing their experiences and truth, they will counter the stigma and help so many women in the future.