This month, Dublin-based writer and comedian Tara Flynn and The Irish Times columnist Róisín Ingle each did the unthinkable. Without shame, they told the Irish public about their past abortions, performed safely in England, hundreds of miles from their homeland, where abortion is still almost always illegal. They took the risky and brave decision to out themselves, in the hope of encouraging other women to come forward, de-stigmatising the issue and pushing the debate towards a referendum on whether Irish women should finally be allowed to take control of their own bodies.
The existing Irish law (since 2013, when it was relaxed a fraction) is based on the Eighth Amendment, which states that the life of an unborn child is equal to that of a woman. Consequently, abortion is illegal unless the woman seeking one is either suicidal or otherwise at risk of dying if she continues the pregnancy. In practice, though, there have been qualifying women who’ve still been denied a termination. One, 31-year-old dentist Savita Halappanavar, died in a Galway hospital in 2012 from septicaemia, after she was refused an abortion while in agonising pain during a miscarriage, because her wanted foetus’ heartbeat could still be detected.
Another, a suicidal immigrant who had been raped in her own country, was forced to remain in Ireland and carry her rapist’s baby full-term to a caesarean delivery. Even if the existing law were followed to the letter – which it demonstrably isn’t – that still leaves women suffering from serious but non-terminal cases of cancer, organ damage, heart disease and medically unviable pregnancies (a baby certain to die must still be carried until its heart stops beating, at whatever emotional cost to the mother) and millions of others being denied the choice to put their own lives first.
As stupid and reckless as I was in getting pregnant, what I did afterwards was one of the most responsible and considered decisions of my entire life
It’s hard to imagine how this can happen in such a wonderful, civilised and welcoming country as Ireland. We share far more in common with the Irish than not. They live in a democracy and their recent record of campaigning for equality has been extraordinarily inspiring (remember #HomeToVote, where thousands of Irish citizens clogged airports and ferry terminals in order to vote through equal marriage? Not to mention the recent introduction of the Gender Recognition Act). But, despite the swelling of pro-choice support in Ireland, there is also still a great deal of anti-abortion feeling and religious propaganda. One of Róisín Ingle’s female colleagues refused to stand with her in solidarity, instead using her own column to warn vaguely of the deep regret “many” nameless friends of friends have about their own terminations.
This argument of life-ruining guilt (so often conflated with “regret”, which means something altogether different) is also America’s preferred tactic, where a doctor can be fined for failing to warn women seeking terminations that they are putting themselves at risk of developing mental illness. In fact, a study of US women found that 95 per cent of women who’d had an abortion did not regret their decision. No medical evidence has ever been found to support the claim of a link between abortion and mental illness such as depression. Nonetheless, this baseless argument was used ad nauseam in the anti-abortionists’ slaying of Planned Parenthood (the US equivalent of Family Planning Clinics, offering contraception and abortion advice), which has just been de-funded after a vote in the House of Representatives. Truly, these are terrifying times for anyone with a uterus.
On a personal level, I know that women can have abortions they don’t regret, because I’m one of them. I had a termination at 19 years old, with the help of the Brook advisory service and my GP. I hadn’t been raped, I wasn’t suicidal, my life was not at risk in the physiological sense. My pregnancy occurred through foolishness, the irresponsibility of quite a messed-up teenager alone in London. But, as stupid and reckless as I was in getting pregnant, what I did afterwards was one of the most responsible and considered decisions of my entire life. Instead of feeling guilty for the state of my young life back then, I feel proud that I chose to put it into some kind of order before subjecting an innocent human to my complete and utter inability to mother – either practically or emotionally – at that time. I’m relieved to have made a correct decision that gave me and, later on, my children, the opportunity for a happy, stable and productive life.
Existing Irish law does not prevent significant numbers of women from having an abortion – it just makes obtaining a safe one expensive, difficult and even more emotionally charged
I feel certain I did the right thing and grateful that, as a British citizen, I was treated with kindness and respect at every step. I didn’t feel terrible afterwards, only shaken, crampy and a whole lot wiser. I cried – I would have preferred it not to have happened. But I was, and am, just fine. I think very rarely about it, in all honesty. My experience is typical throughout my friendship group, but I’m certainly not disputing that some women are more adversely affected by their decision to terminate a pregnancy. But feeling sad and conflicted about a past abortion is not the same as guilt, and feeling guilty over an abortion is not the same as regretting one. And none of these feelings are any justification for making women into criminals and threatening them with up to 14 years in prison.
Because making abortion illegal and punitive doesn’t stop it happening, not for a minute. The abortion rate is roughly the same in countries where it is “unavailable” as it is in countries where it’s available. Just in Ireland, an estimated 4,000 women per year travel to the UK to obtain an abortion, with many more buying miscarriage-inducing drugs online. Around a quarter of them are under 25 years old (I dread to imagine how they find the money; I barely had enough for a two-stop bus ride).
Whatever its supporters believe, existing Irish law does not prevent significant numbers of women from having an abortion – it just makes obtaining a safe one extremely expensive, difficult and even more emotionally charged. I feel hugely grateful for not having faced the same obstacles when I terminated my own pregnancy 21 years ago. And that is why I will add my story to the cause, and support my fearless Irish sisters all the way to referendum. They should know British women have their back.