As I write something incredible and life changing has happened: Ireland has repealed the 8th Amendment to their constitution which considered the life of an unborn foetus equivalent to the person carrying it. This effectively prohibited abortion even in the most exceptional and life threatening circumstances within Ireland.
To access abortion Irish women had to travel outside the country, mainly to Great Britain but sometimes to Holland and pay the full costs of the travel, time off work and the procedure itself. This put abortion outside the reach of most people. The younger you were, the poorer you were, if you already had children and needed childcare, if you were disabled or had immigration issues, abortion was priced out of your reach. Even budget airlines cost too much on social security.
And you couldn’t just ask people for help. The shame and stigma of abortion in a country that for years had mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries that literally locked women up for being pregnant and took the babies they were forced to birth away was immense. In places like Tuam, those babies ended up in a mass grave. Elsewhere they were sold to couples wanting to adopt. The last mother and baby home in Ireland closed in 1996. That’s the year I turned 18.
The culture was cloaked in wanting to protect the unborn but really it was about shaming sexually active women and denying their rights and bodily autonomy. The case that triggered yesterday’s referendum was that of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who came to work in Galway. When her wanted pregnancy turned to miscarriage and infection set in, she requested an abortion to save her life. But because the foetus still had a heartbeat as it miscarried the 8th Amendment prevented doctors from acting as to hasten the end of the miscarriage was illegal.
Savita took took seven days to die from sepsis in a Western country with less access to maternal rights and healthcare than her native India. The case was pivotal for Ireland and set the path for the referendum (Ireland must hold national referenda to change any aspect of its written constitution. It has previously held them on divorce and same sex marriage as well as the 8th itself in 1983 when it was still illegal to buy condoms without a prescription.)
The only countries with more oppressive abortion laws in Europe than Ireland are Northern Ireland, Malta and the Isle of Man (although there is campaigning under way there to change the laws.) Northern Ireland has the unique quirk where its citizens can hold equal Irish and British citizenship but access the full rights of neither country. The UK government exempted Northern Ireland from the 1967 Abortion Act meaning that abortion is still illegal there. It will not become legal or easier to access because of Ireland’s referendum.
Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK that still prohibits same sex marriage and in many ways the mindset of the politicians who govern it is back in the 1950s (at best.) Amnesty International has polled Northern Irish people who back similar on demand abortion up to 12 weeks as Ireland voted on and the same roughly 69% of people back it north of the border.
Yet there have been prosecutions and convictions in Northern Ireland in 2016 and 2017 of women who bought abortion pills over the internet because they could not afford to travel to access abortion. Many Irish women, north and south, had those pills seized and in both countries buying them can incur a life sentence in prison. Abortion law in Northern Ireland is from 1861 and a law created before the invention of the lightbulb is not fit for the online era.
Until recently Northern Irish women, despite being considered part of the United Kingdom were unable to access abortions on the NHS if they travelled to Great Britain. Again they had to pay privately for everything forcing many women to choose if they could afford the fee for the anaesthetic and the cost that would incur of staying in a hotel to recover from it rather than travel back the same day. When you reduce medical care to your financial ability you automatically create inequality in your system.
I have never been pregnant. I have never had to access an abortion. But I grew up in Northern Ireland and the lack of abortion rights across the island of Ireland haunted every woman. Something as enjoyable and affectionate and life enhancing as sex felt like Russian roulette.
A country that denies its women the right to choose denies them all reproductive choice. Contraception is treated like a shame on society too. When I was a teenager it was incredibly difficult to access the Pill and condoms were prohibitively expensive. We’d go to the Brook Clinic in the centre of Belfast in our school uniforms and run the gauntlet of people screaming ‘slut’ and ‘murderer’ at us, clearly unaware of how Durex work. Even now my Northern Irish peers are given less access to long acting contraceptives and had to endure protests by anti choice activists like Bernie Smyth to get it.
We had no sex education either and it was pre internet. We learned about genitals from a diagram in a biology book on a frog. Periods were often called ‘the curse’. There was nowhere to go to ask for help or advice. With this repressive background and an ongoing civil conflict meant we didn’t even need the legality of Section 28 to prevent LGBTQ issues and rights being mentioned at all. We simply had the bigotry of the Save Ulster From Sodomy campaign instead. And of course this archaic attitude did little to stop us having sex.
Everyone I knew was fucking rings round themselves. Not only did all that repression make sex forbidden fruit that we thought would taste all the sweeter, but in the middle of an armed conflict your leisure opportunities were fairly restricted and all there was to do in a country that still chained the swings in the park up on the Lord’s Day was have sex.
But the irony was that sex was all about the risk and not the fun. Every time you fucked you were running the consequences of having to ‘take the ferry’ through your head rather than the pleasure you should be experiencing. There was this collective fear and shame about sex. We discussed our escape plan for an unintended pregnancy more than our sexual desires or our bodies (and yet I was still 17 and had been sexually active for 2 years before I first heard of the morning after pill.)
The act of sex for pleasure was shrouded in deep deep shame because that was to admit you were one of those women who put your own selfishness before the unborn child’s rights even if you never had an abortion. You were a slut and a disgrace simply by association. We never discussed masturbation. We never discussed queerness. We never asked if this was normal or acceptable because we’d internalised the idea that any sex made us abnormal and wrong. We went in for self loathing rather than Cosmo quizzes.
Being able to access abortion due to my health (and the sheer fact I’ve never wanted kids) was a huge reason I moved to England. But in order to access the right to choose I had to leave everyone I knew and everything I grew up with and I left with a sense that my country was ashamed of me and I was unwelcome there. Many of my friends didn’t even have that choice or were unwilling to trade family and connections for hypothetical situations and so stayed.
But there was consequences. A girl at school concealed her pregnancy for eight months until she went into premature labour at home with a stillborn baby. She blamed herself for the death and killed herself a decade on after years of mental health issues. 80% of the girls I went to school with had children by 21.
Even if their children were chosen, they suffered from post partum mental health conditions at a rate far higher than their GB peers because it’s hard to switch from the mindset of being told that having a baby ruins your life to loving one. I’ve lost count of the cases of postal natal depression, PTSD in childbirth and post partum psychosis my school friends have mentioned. Infant mortality in parts of Northern Ireland remains the highest in the whole of Europe. Reproductive choice in Northern Ireland is class based and compounded by post conflict sectarian divides.
I’ve received out of the blue Facebook messages from people I barely remember more than once which under the ‘oh I was just thinking about you’ jollity was the question ‘could I stay with you in London for a night?’ It was always an interview or some cover story but I was just the only person they knew with a free place to stay or an address they could use. I asked no questions and played along.
I even let a friend of a friend use my English address her to have abortion pills delivered to knowing having them delivered directly would arouse suspicion and possible seizure in Belfast. I wrapped them up disguised as a birthday present for her and posted them on. They were for her 14 year old daughter who had been raped.
We both knew the risks but she did it for her child and I did it for all the people who that culture failed to prevent from abusive relationships. Again compared to my non Irish friends we, myself included, were so vulnerable to levels of abuse, coercion and sexual trauma it’s hard for people who grew up with legal abortion rights to comprehend.
Our lives and transition into adulthood was marked mainly by fear and shame. I haven’t lived in that atmosphere for nearly 20 years and it still impacts me now. It took a long time to shake off the fear of judgement and (self) blame around sex for me and to not feel profound shame for being sexually active but knowing I didn’t want children.
The things we are told as children and teenagers by our families, teachers, religious leaders and community linger in our minds for a long time and it breaks my heart that my friends’ children are hearing the same shame inducing ‘morality’ we heard from the same people. I wonder how it must feel to be a teenager in Northern Ireland today seeing the Yes vote next door and seeing that campaigning and solidarity can change things that we thought would never change.
If you are celebrating Yes today then please take a moment to sign Amnesty’s petition for Northern Irish abortion rights or support the work of the grassroots Alliance 4 Choice organisation or the fantastic Abortion Support Network who raise money to help women on both sides of the border travel for abortions. The need for their work will not be eradicated overnight.
And remember, you can be pro choice while not having an abortion yourself. No one is going to start forcing women and pregnant people to abort. But people who can get pregnant need the choice whether to continue that pregnancy or not. We don’t force people to give blood or donate organs and extending abortion rights will not detract from your right to refuse a termination.
But you can give Northern Irish women a choice not to grow up and live with the sense that pregnancy is a trauma in its own right. You can help make sure all children are wanted children. There is no sex positivity in a country that is negative on reproductive rights and I want rights for everyone I left behind.