Big Damn Abortion Heroes in Ireland: Part Two

I’ve talked a lot recently about people getting in the way of access to abortion in Ireland. The women who ratted their housemate out to the police because she wasn’t sorry enough about her abortion. I’ve gotten deeply snarky about people who make mind-bogglingly ignorant arguments against pregnant people’s right to choose.

I have’t talked that much about the other side: the people who speak up. Those who tell their stories. People who risk arrest and villification to choose their own path or to support others’ choices. The big damn abortion heroes of our time.

As there are a lot of people to share, this post is split this into three parts. Part One is here.

Telling it like it is

It’s illegal to import or take abortion pills. Nevertheless, people do it every day. While it’s legal to leave the country for an abortion, until recently it’s been considered such a shameful thing to do that most women went through the whole process in secret.

 To share that you’ve had an abortion has been taboo- despite the fact that more than 150,000 people are recorded as having gone to the UK for terminations since it was made unconstitutional in 1983. I shouldn’t have to say this, but: that figure of 150,000 is almost certainly far smaller than the true figures. It doesn’t include anyone who bought abortion pills online since they’ve become available, anyone who had an abortion in the UK and didn’t share their Irish address, or anyone who went to a different country. It leaves out every self-induced abortion that nobody heard of.

It takes immense courage to share your abortion story in Ireland. I remember the first time I heard those words- “I had an abortion”- in a public space:

I’ve heard those words before, but never like this. In living rooms and bedrooms over cups of tea and bottles of wine. With people who know me well or- more recently- people who know enough of my public persona. That’s how we talk about these things here. With people we trust. Behind closed doors.

And then today one woman stood up as the meeting was about to break for lunch, took up the microphone and told over a hundred people that she had had an abortion, that she had had to travel and that her only regret was having to leave her country to do it.

Those four little words. “I’ve had an abortion”.

It says something about Ireland that in my relatively-brief time as a pro choice activist I have never once heard someone say it in public. Hearing them spoken out loud, here in this open meeting full of activists it felt like a revolution.

That woman was Janet Ní Shuilleabháin, an incredible activist who I’m proud to call a friend. A few years later, she went on to tell her story to the entire country:

Just after 10:35 pm on Thursday the 13th, having asked a few friends to be online for moral support I started to tell my story, my experience of abortion in Ireland. I talked about being in secondary school when news of the X case broke; finding out I was pregnant and having to travel; coming home and keeping secrets; then helping other women who needed access to information and support when they came home. I talked about the factually inaccurate and misleading national poster campaign launched by Youth Defence in June 2012 and how that campaign brought pro-choice people together in solidarity and with a determination to affect real change in Ireland.

The mainstream media don’t cover stories like mine, I am unrepentant about having had an abortion. My only regret is that I had to travel and that added masses of stress to an already stressful situation.

Janet turned out to be one of the first of many. Some voices were loud, such as well-known (also hilarious and biting) comedian Tara Flynn:

When it’s your turn, you see a doctor. Then a counsellor asks how you are, who you’ve told, if you’ve told your mum. I hadn’t. You don’t talk about abortion in Ireland, not even to the most amazing woman in your life.

To this day I haven’t told my doctor. She may be completely supportive, but most women don’t want to risk being judged in the safe space that is their doctor’s office at a moment in which they might already be vulnerable.

The procedure. Kind doctors. Compassion. “Are you going to be all right getting back to the airport? How will you get there?” Picking me up post-procedure and putting me back in bed when I tried to leave too soon and collapsed. I couldn’t get back to Ireland, to my loved ones, quickly enough. Relief. Relief. Tears. Relief.

A recliner at the airport, my coat over me. A friend to pick me up when I landed. Relief.

But the second I landed, I became a criminal. Guilty. Shameful. A killer. It didn’t matter that I knew I was none of those things, like so many thousands before me (and an average of 12 every day since). I kept my mouth shut, like a good woman. I didn’t want to attract the vitriol so many who say their focus is life feel free to dispense.

Writer and columnist Róisín Ingle:

There are Somethings I wouldn’t write about. Plenty of Things. Numerous and various Experiences. But it’s the same one Experience that always comes to my mind when anyone asks that question. And instead of being honest about the Experience, I tell them “I have my secrets” and flash what I hope is an enigmatic smile. In terms of shutting down this particular line of enquiry, I’ve found it works a treat.

Many times over the years I’ve stopped myself writing about this Experience. And every time I’ve asked myself why. Was I ashamed of it? No. Was I embarrassed? Not at all. Did I feel I’d done something wrong? Quite the opposite. What I had done was the right decision for me.

I was stopping myself from writing about the Experience because of what other people might think. Which, when I thought about it, was completely against the spirit of my column.

…My Experience is not something strange or unique or uncommon. It is something many other women in Ireland and around the world can relate to: I had an abortion. I am glad I did.

Others are less well-known, but no less important for that. There’s Emily, who shared her experience importing abortion pills in the Irish Times (and in so doing, helped to show the way to others). Hers is also a story about suffering through a difficult abortion without feeling that she could tell a single person what was happening:

Emily expected to get home before the cramps started. “They give you a fact sheet of what to expect. But after about half an hour I felt like I was being punched repeatedly in the stomach. When we got to my stop I was sweating. I got off and vomited, and called my mother and told her I was having a really bad period and could she have the door open for me.”

She vomited again when she got home; the “pain was coming every few seconds”.

Her mother, concerned, suggested that they go to hospital. She called her neighbour, who helped with pain relief, but in the end the abortion was completed without Emily’s having to admit what was happening.

The bleeding lasted for about two more weeks, after which, she says, she was back to normal. Emily did not seek follow-up medical advice, “mainly for fear of my doctor knowing something was awry. After the abortion I actually felt okay – nothing out of the ordinary that hadn’t been outlined.”

One group who understand the importance of sharing stories and breaking the silence around abortion are the Share Your Abortion Story Project. Their workshops are facilitated by the incredible Angela Coraccio (who’s shared her own story countless times) and many of the participants’ stories are published on their Tumblr. If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only one, spend some time reading their archives or join their workshops. You’re not alone.

For more of Ireland’s big damn heroes of abortion read Part One of this series, and keep your eyes out for Part Three.



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Big Damn Abortion Heroes in Ireland: Part Two

2 thoughts on “Big Damn Abortion Heroes in Ireland: Part Two

  1. 2

    I just found this! Thanks so much for the mention 😀 And I’m going to be running the Share Your Abortion Story Writing Workshops again in the autumn, so anyone who is interested should definitely get in touch.

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