On the eve of the vote to #Repealthe8th, my story shows the depths of reproductive injustice this island has put women through
‘Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.
With statistics suggesting 1 in 3 women in Britain will need an abortion in their lives, it feels like accessing free, safe, and legal abortion should be an integral part of British values. Yet in 2012, having moved to England to study at university, with the opportunity to make decisions over my body autonomy unlike the friends I left at home in Northern Ireland – I still felt shame and stigma surrounding my choice to have an abortion. I am sharing my story openly, in solidarity with those before me who have harnessed their pain to change the narrative surrounding abortion rights in their country. I’m writing because it is the time the ‘yes’ vote needs human faces, emotions, and stories like ours.
It's been an arduous and emotional fight to convince the Irish government to address the unnecessary harm to Irish citizen’s mental and physical health that a near-total ban on abortion has inflicted for generations. The atmosphere to me is reminiscent of 2015, when the marriage equality referendum took place and love reigned supreme with 65 per cent of voters backing marriage equality – it’s a spirited but nervous energy, fuelled by fears of being complacent when it comes to calling this historic vote. It’s 2018 and there’s a finally chance to bring women’s rights up to date: on polling day, it will almost be 6 years since I walked into a Marie Stopes Clinic in London, as a wide-eyed and petrified university fresher.
I cannot vote in the referendum, yet three generations of strong Northern Irish women in my family, including my mother and grandmother, have been oppressed and degraded by the laws in place, north and south. In 2012, I was busy trying to settle into life in an unfamiliar English town as a university fresher – dealing with the unexpected hurdles of moving away, like clapping back at students making fun of my accent. I felt alienated and far away from my family – I had not envisioned dealing with what was the all-consuming, impending doom of navigating a crisis pregnancy my first year in England. Despite everything I was hyper aware of the ‘privilege’ of bodily autonomy awarded to me as a winner of this real-life ‘Gilead’ style postcode lottery. Archaic views on women’s rights, LGBT rights, and tribal politics had been a dominating factor in my decision to leave Belfast in the first place and I had always been resolute in my support of reproductive rights.
Paranoid teenagers in Ireland spend a lot of time planning out worst case scenarios – travelling to England and back in a day on a school sick day, taking illegal but safe abortion pills in the quiet of the family bathroom. Know that these decisions are never taken lightly among us. Despite an instant connection with my partner in crime, my capacity for star-crossed romance had been shot to hell by what appeared on the screen of my Clear Blue pregnancy test. The overriding feeling was still shame, followed by gratitude that I was eligible for free, safe, and legal medical care when I needed it.
Despite having no doubts over my decision, the culture of misogyny that orbits women terminating pregnancies haunted me. The catchphrases of anti-choice propaganda thrust on me in school stuck to my ribs as a male GP in my English surgery patronised me about my cycle length and talked down to me about my own body, my Belfast accent an awkward buffer.
When I requested a doctor’s note to explain future absences at university, as I waited on two referral notes for my termination, I was told rather condescendingly that pregnancy was not an illness. I held back tears as I meekly suggested he treat future patents with a little more compassion while he begrudgingly wrote out my note: ‘My patient is experiencing a medical issue causing stress’. I trekked two miles from the surgery back to halls, sobbing in the rain.
Constant morning sickness was a throbbing reminder, as I waited a few weeks to be treated in my chosen clinic. Despite having a close support network of friends, I still felt guarded over who I shared the news of my crisis pregnancy with. Some may wonder why I’ve never told them about it: you were not my safe space, I was fearful you would judge me. I told my mum the night before my termination, and it was only during that phone call that she would finally address her own personal trauma. She too felt it a heavy and shameful burden to share, even with her only daughter.
“The abortion took place on the floor of a Belfast home – back then, they were performed using soap. She recalled seeing the homeowner’s dinner scraps from the night before on the stove as she lay on the floor”
My mother found herself pregnant at a similar age, the first time she had ever had sex. A backstreet abortion was quickly arranged by my small but mighty grandmother, who came from a Catholic background and entered motherhood as a teenager after a shotgun marriage. The abortion took place on the floor of a Belfast home – back then, they were performed using soap. She recalled seeing the homeowner’s dinner scraps from the night before on the stove as she lay on the floor, a sombre guest in this stranger’s home, denied basic healthcare and dignity. This was a family home, and all the women in it were facing life imprisonment for the sake of my mother’s bodily autonomy.
This was 1970s Belfast, and not much has changed – in 2016, a woman was given a suspended sentence after inducing her own miscarriage at home, turned in to the police by her own housemates. In early 2017, the authorities raided the homes of activists and seized packages of abortion pills. My mum still feels bound by shame because the law criminalises abortion – she’s still fearful of stigma, and even legal consequences. That is why I’m sharing our story, and for the generations of Irish women who came before me and will follow me, conditioned by this culture.
When I was treated by the clinic in Ealing (west London), I was warned about pro-life protesters insistently. ‘If you are travelling by Taxi make sure they drop you off right at the door’ they advised. ‘Protesters might shout at you, they might even try and block you from coming in, ignore them as best you can and press the buzzer on the door to access the building.’ I shook as I exited the taxi, but thankfully did not encounter the imposing, at times violent protesters others had faced. When I arrived I heard a familiar accent at the reception desk, and an older Irish woman signed me in. Less than a month ago, Ealing Council made UK history by banning protesters outside the clinic, thanks to pressure from Sister Supporter.
As sisters north and south of the border canvass, people journey home from across the globe to vote, and allies cheer IRL and URL to push for repeal, we must keep in mind the faceless nine a day travelling for abortions, landing on their Ryanair flights even as the ballot boxes fill up. Whatever way Ireland votes, more will need to be done, and we must ask what the Northern Irish government plans to do about those they continue to export, draconian laws on abortion as of yet unthreatened. We must also keep working on the stigma surrounding our bodies, and the societal values hangover from Ireland that still lives on in us. In bustling streets marching arm-in-arm, across kitchen tables, and in corners of pubs – I hope whatever happens we’ll stand together.