'I'm Not Ashamed About My Abortion'

When Sarah Thompson had an abortion it was a criminal act in New South Wales. Ten years later, terminating a pregnancy is still illegal in the state, despite most Australians supporting legal abortions.

At just 27 years old,  Sarah knew she wasn't ready to become a mother when she discovered she was pregnant.

She had a boyfriend she cared for, but wasn't in love with.

After discussing her options with her doctor, she booked an appointment to terminate the pregnancy.

Sarah Thompson. Image from Stefan Wellsmore.

She told no one besides her mother and then-partner, arriving to the family planning clinic early to avoid the protesters gathering outside.

Thompson was handed paperwork to sign and led into a room, where she was given a hospital gown to wear during the surgical abortion.

"It only took five to 10 minutes to do. When I woke up I was in another room and my mum was there, she came with me and held my hand. They offered me a cup of tea and made sure my blood sugar levels were okay," Thompson told 10 daily.

Sarah photographed by Stefan Wellsmore.

After the appointment, Thompson suffered light bleeding and cramps but nothing "unbearable".

More difficult was seeing the ultrasound before the procedure.

"It was a painful decision but it feels like the right one," Thompson said.

"I’m really proud of the choices I have made. I’ve lived in London, New York and Indonesia and I’m now back at uni doing my Masters. I wouldn’t be able to do the same things if I had a young family," she said.

READ MORE: Abortion Clinics Finally Have 'Safe Access Zones'

Image credit: Stefan Wellsmore.

Research shows the majority of Australians support the right for women to access safe and legal abortion services.

However, access to abortion varies considerably based on what state women are living in.

Abortion is decriminalised in WA, NT, Victoria, Tasmania, the ACT and QLD.

In New South Wales, unlawfully procuring an abortion is punishable by 10 years' imprisonment, unless there is a risk to a woman's physical or mental health.

READ MORE: A State-By-State Breakdown Of Where Abortion Is Legal

Getty Images,

Just last year, the NSW parliament voted down a bill to decriminalise abortion.

"I feel saddened by it," Thompson said.

"It's not good enough from our government. We have a woman as premier and we say we support equality and equal opportunity but reproductive rights are a key aspect of that and they’re not being respected."

Stigma continues to surround abortions, despite estimates that a quarter to a third of women will undertake an abortion at some point in their lives.

Jacquie O'Brien, Director Public Affairs and Policy at Marie Stopes Australia, said NSW women have benefited greatly from the creation of "safe exclusion zones" outside abortion clinics.

"Before the safe zones every Friday you'd have protesters, some of them with graphic images, and they'd be constantly telling staff that they're going to hell. There was one protester who used to have things about women being baby murderers," O'Brien told 10 daily.

"Some patients were quite traumatised. It was such unnecessary anxiety and pain that they were causing, but the safe zones have taken that stress away and staff can focus on the patients."

READ MORE:  Alabama Passes Abortion Ban With No Exceptions For Rape Or Incest

Abortion rally bella ziade
Bella Ziade at a Sydney abortion rally.

Last week, hundreds of women took to the streets in protest in Sydney after the US state of Alabama banned abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.

O'Brien said that while the abortion restrictions in some US states may embolden pro-life campaigners, Australians are progressive when it comes to abortion.

"Everyone in Australia is looking to the US and thinking, we can't let that happen here. When one in four women are accessing abortion, it's crazy to think such a common procedure is criminalised in NSW. It's time for a change," she said.

Melanie Marks is from the US state of Pennsylvania and had two abortions, one in 1997 and another in 2015.

The mother of four told 10 daily that in her area, most family planning clinics have been shut down, with women having to travel far distances to have the procedure.

Melanie Marks. Image supplied.

The 44-year-old woman said her second abortion cost $580 (USD $400) and before the procedure she was confronted by a group of pro-life protesters outside the clinic.

"I felt very judged, dirty, and anxious. I kept my head down, and walked fast. My boss took me, she grabbed my hand. Kept telling me it's okay, and to not listen," Marks said.

"[They called] me a murderer. That's the one that really sticks out. The rest was kind of a blur. The voices overlapped. I got inside very fast. It was horrific. I'm not healed emotionally."

READ MORE: Support For Abortion Rights Grows As US States Curb Access

Image supplied.

It's not unusual for women to struggle with guilt and shame after terminating their pregnancies.

At Marie Stopes clinics, women are offered counselling before and after the procedure, with their research showing patients value compassionate care and a timely follow-up.

For Thompson, the outlawing of abortion in Alabama has highlighted the need for safe, affordable and legal abortion services Australia-wide.

"I want other women to have the choice I did, without the fear and stigma," Thompson said.

"Abortion is never something to be taken lightly, but it must be an option for women who don’t feel ready, for whatever reason, to start a family."

Contact Eden on Twitter @edengillespie