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How Do Employers Tackle the Taboo Subject of Abortion?

Our work as employee support coaches takes us in many different directions.

Put simply, we are the people whom organisations contact when an employee is struggling with an intense life challenge, such as diagnosis of a terminal illness, bereavement, depression, and starting a family.  
Some employees are also referred to us before and after they have been through an abortion.  
We applaud these organisations, since abortion is a taboo subject for many, and one we’ve noticed people do not want to discuss.  If they have to, they will stumble over their words and look down at the floor, often because they are terrified of saying the wrong thing.
That makes us think about all the people who don’t feel able to approach their employers for support with such a huge, life-changing decision.  
Many organisations have no official policy to cover abortion, meaning their employees have to risk asking outright questions before they understand what support will be available to them.  
Others may feel that they will be unfairly judged, so will simply request annual leave without telling their employers anything at all.  I have even heard stories about women returning to work the very next day, despite the fact that it can take anywhere from two to six weeks for the physical after-effects of abortion to subside – and that’s before we consider the impact on her mental health.
We believe that making the seismic decision to have an abortion, then go through with it, can result in the same weight of personal loss and grief as a miscarriage, only with a generous side-helping of additional guilt.  
Employer support should therefore not be a hazy option or a ‘nice to have’, but provided generously and without question.
Yet how do we begin to break down the conversational taboo that surrounds abortion?
Abortion is Not a ‘One Size Fits All’ Process
You may be surprised to know that there are two different categories of abortion:

  • Therapeutic abortion refers to a termination due to medical reasons
  • Elective (or voluntary) abortion refers to a termination at the request of the woman

There are also two differing ways in which these are performed:

  • Medical abortion refers to a pill taken up to nine weeks of pregnancy
  • Surgical abortion is carried out up to 23 weeks, and requires a general anaesthetic

As you can imagine, even if only taken from a physical point of view, there is a world of difference between taking a pill, and undergoing a major surgical procedure.  
The NHS website explains that the common side effects of having a general anaesthetic are, “feeling sick, vomiting, and dizziness”, along with bruising and soreness, and a sore throat from instances where a tube is inserted into the woman’s mouth to help her breathe. 
Meanwhile, the list of hormonal effects includes cramping, bleeding, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression, a weakened immune system, and hair loss… amongst many others. 
(By now, you may be as amazed as I am about the number of women who suffer in silence, or who feel they have to return to work the very next day.) 
Keep Your Ears (and Your Mind) Open
It is worth noting that the term ‘elective abortion’ has attracted some controversy, as highlighted in this article from the AMA Journal of Ethics.
One reason is that many so-called ‘voluntary’ abortions are, in reality, not so voluntary.  As explained by the article’s author, “several physicians who perform abortions have told me that many of their patients do not perceive themselves as having any choice at all — dire social circumstances lead them to see abortion as their only option.”
This further highlights the fact that there are many and varied reasons why people consider terminating a pregnancy.  Listening and keeping an open, non-judgemental mind are crucial to providing the right employee support.
To explain this diversity, here is a list of interconnecting decision-making factors, many of which I have experienced directly when supporting employees.

  • Concerns for the woman’s own health
  • The inability to provide long-term care for a child following pregnancy defects
  • Trauma caused by a previous birth
  • Being of menopausal age
  • Career-limiting concerns
  • The woman and/or her partner not wanting to be parents, or have any more children
  • The need to focus on other children 

Focus on Your Employee and Their Needs First
Abortion isn’t an everyday subject for casual discussion, so it can feel awkward to be approached by an employee who wants to talk about their decision.
However, focusing on those personal feelings of awkwardness and discomfort could make your employee feel judged, rather than supported.
Instead, focus fully on them, by listening first, and then responding clearly and practically.  Explain the ways in which your organisation will support them, and if they ask, or you feel it is needed, offer additional support, such as access to counselling services.
If we make an effort to stop shying away from open conversations about abortion, we will be better able to break down the taboos that surround it.  This will lead to greater levels of support for your affected employees, as well as promoting a general sense of care in your organisation.
If you are concerned about an employee, or you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us for a confidential discussion.


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