When I came to after my abortion, I was faintly aware, through the fuzz of the anaesthetic wearing off, that there were tears pouring down my face. They seemed to come of their own accord with no instruction from my brain. Another patient, an older woman sitting on a bed near me, brought water and comforted me, telling me I was young, I would have a baby when I was older if I wanted one. But I wasn’t crying with sadness about what I had done, or guilt, or regret. My body was in a state of relief so total that it had collapsed without defence. I lay there, unable to so much as make a fist, the tears coming unendingly and a fierce gratitude swelling in my chest.
I was crying with the acute appreciation of what the staff at Marie Stopes had done for me – they had taken care of me when nobody in my own country would.
I turned to a nurse who had been especially kind, not that much older than myself, and I wanted to make her understand what had happened. I wanted her to know what they had done for me, and how grateful I would be for the rest of my life. I wanted her to know that I saw how she and her colleagues noted the blank-faced shock and the embarrassment I came in with, that I saw them go out of their way to treat me with tact and dignity. “Ssh,” she said, “I’m only doing my job.”
But the thing is, it wasn’t her job to do.
This week, it was reported that Marie Stopes was temporarily being forced to turn away private clients, who are, primarily, Irish women like me, due to overwhelming demand. The burden of the 3,735 per year who travel to the UK to seek abortion has exhausted their resources. I am not, to be clear, here to criticise Marie Stopes for this – it is simply one more illustration of how intolerable Irish abortion legislation is. UK providers should not be held responsible for tidying up the mess which results from the illegality of Irish abortion and this frightening development shows that expecting them to do so is unsustainable.
I knew that I would not be giving birth under any circumstances, that if I was not able to terminate the pregnancy I would prefer to die than to be forced to do so
An Irish woman seeking an abortion is often already in the middle of a highly stressful crisis pregnancy. A delay of even a few weeks can make a crucial difference to her in terms of gestation and also financial cost. We have to hope that Marie Stopes is correct and that this turning away of Irish women will be brief and temporary, but what does it tell us about abortion access going forward? How can we guarantee that UK providers will continue to shoulder Ireland’s burden? And what does it mean for an Irish woman to be refused a UK abortion?
I can give you one version of events. If I had been turned away when I sought an abortion in the UK, I would have tried to do it myself at home. Failing that, I would have tried to kill myself. This is not a poetic exaggeration to make my point. I have it all there in black and white, my diaries teeming with madly tiny handwriting leaking out into the margins, frantically listing my options. I googled methods of home abortion, stumbling, horrified, on to accounts of women permanently disabling themselves after drinking bleach. I knew that I would not be giving birth under any circumstances, that if I was not able to terminate the pregnancy I would prefer to die than to be forced to do so.
There is a huge dearth of understanding about how horrifying the bodily condition of unwanted pregnancy is. It can be a profoundly disturbing and traumatic experience. With every day that passed, things were changing and happening inside of me and becoming worse, getting further from my reach. It felt as though malign forces had colonised what once had been me, and would not be expelled.
That was the thing I remember best: how shocking it is to really have no control over your own body. For a person like me, a person who had never been ill, it was my first encounter with this truth.
I had made the appalling discovery that my body was not my own – it was just a thing that happened, like disease, or weather. It was an unbearable condition to be in; I could not have borne it, in any case, and would not have. That someone like me with no major pre-existing mental illness could, with serious intent, consider suicide under these circumstances highlights the extremity of emotions involved at times like these.
The prospect of abortion providers like Marie Stopes shutting their doors to Irish women in need is a truly chilling one. Without them, we will see more clearly the full horror of Ireland’s laws. As disgraceful as the current situation is, without the pressure valve of UK services it will become catastrophic. That the fight for our reproductive rights is one of life and death is not a figure of speech. It is literal and it is imminent.