A survey of more than 2,600 women by Marie Stopes International found just one in three women would tell their family if they were considering a termination. Similarly, only 34% would speak to their friends about their choice, and 62% would tell their sexual partner.
Some women (6%) disclosed they would not talk to anyone, aside from a medical professional.
Despite more than nine in 10 women identifying as pro-choice, ongoing abortion stigma means there is still a wall of silence around the topic. However, the majority of women surveyed think abortion should be talked about more openly.
The research comes as the charity launches its #SmashAbortionStigma campaign, encouraging people to share their stories on social media using the hashtag, or record a short video explaining why they are pro-choice.
Amy Allum, 28, was at college when she discovered she was pregnant after her contraception had failed, aged 17. “I knew straight away that I wanted to have an abortion, I wanted to go on to university and travel the world,” she says.
“Even though I was completely confident in my choice, I only told a few people at the time. In hindsight, I felt silenced because it wasn’t something people spoke about.”
Allum felt able to tell her mum, who encouraged her to visit the doctor with her then-boyfriend. Unfortunately, neither her boyfriend nor the doctor were supportive, which is why Allum is passionate about ending abortion stigma.
“I will never forget telling the doctor I wanted to have an abortion,” she says. “He told me it was not something he agreed with and left the room – I was mortified.”
The day after her abortion, she went back to college. Her teacher asked if she was feeling better, and she nodded – trying not to cry. “It wasn’t the abortion that upset me, I was upset that I couldn’t tell the truth,” she says. “I felt as though I had a dirty little secret that I couldn’t share with anyone.”
Katriana Ciccotto, 24, from London, had an abortion earlier this year and also felt unable to speak about it at the time. She’d fallen pregnant after her first romantic encounter since coming out of a long-term relationship, describing it as a “huge shock to the system”.
“I immediately went to a sexual health clinic. The nurse I saw had a crucifix around her neck and made no eye contact with me at all,” Ciccotto recalls. “She asked what I wanted to do and when I said I couldn’t have a child, she gave me a ripped piece of paper with a number on it and said ‘give them a call’.”
Ciccotto found herself talking to someone from Marie Stopes and said it was “like I’d fallen onto a blanket of feathers”. Despite receiving support from the charity, she still felt unable to tell her parents, who are both from Catholic countries, and didn’t want to burden her friends.
“I lost so much sleep in the two-and-a-half week wait between the phone call and the procedure,” she says. “It was such a stressful, dark time. It was really sad because I needed support from someone close to me and I was on my own.”
Eventually, Ciccotto’s boss pulled her aside at work and asked if something was wrong. She burst into tears and explained everything. Her boss convinced her to speak to her mum.
“I couldn’t look her in the eye as I told her, but my mum held my hand and told me that she understood and that she had also had an abortion at a similar age to me,” she says. “Telling her was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
The #SmashAbortionStigma campaign hopes to counteract negative attitudes towards women seeking abortion care and bring it to the forefront of everyday conversations. It’s supported by a number of high-profile figures including Heidi Allen MP, novelist Marian Keyes and Derry Girls actress, Siobhan McSweeney.
Dr Caroline Gazet, clinical director for Marie Stopes UK, said: “In the UK, one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, yet we know that abortion stigma can make women feel judged, shamed and silenced.
“The UK is a pro-choice nation, but with a small minority of anti-choice voices threatening abortion rights worldwide, it is more important than ever that we smash abortion stigma and champion the right of women to access abortion care.”