In 1995 I was a young student living in a tiny flat-share in Dublin when I discovered I was pregnant. If I’d wanted an abortion there were people would have helped me make the necessary trip to England, but I didn’t want one. It was an easy decision, for me. Wasn’t I lucky to be born in a time and place that allowed a young single woman to keep her child, to be only slightly cast out, to survive.
The generations before would have sent me to one of our infamous mother and baby homes. Though my family would have been less likely to do this than most. We’ve a rebel code and they supported me. You’re welcome.
There’s a movie about the homes, you may have seen it, The Magdelene Laundries. I can’t see it, too close to the bone, and I don’t have to. I know the cruelty to women, and children, and girls. In Ireland they were cast out by family and society, to be treated like scum by the worthy, their children taken, and tortured, and sold.
I don’t believe in heaven or hell, but I know who I’d send. The mothers and children to heaven. And to hell, those who would make life hell for others. As if it isn’t hell enough already. You might say I have violence of feeling, always on the brink of fury. You’d better believe that I am.
And I have a terrible hope, faith in the blindness that is the thinking of times. If you are a person who thinks with your time then there is protection, not for the children of course, no protection for them. But for the mothers. Because the truth is, most would not have thought anything else was possible. A mercy for them. But for those who think and think out of their time, life is torment, is hell. I’m reminded of that Great Gatsby quote…
‘She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
And we know exactly what she meant.
When my mother was a girl it was whispered and known, that if you became pregnant you would be sent away to a mother and baby home. There was no question of keeping a baby unless you were married. You’d be outcast, you’d never find work, or the necessary husband, you’d both starve. And the terrible fear was that you had no idea how anyone got pregnant in the first place. Think about that. That was our society a minute ago, for girl children, our female kin. Not for men, ever. Not for the fathers of these children. Often the girl was also disowned by her family, or at least never to ‘speak of it’ again. Toxic shame, toxic humanity. While the men went on with their lives. Oh yes, all men.
In my time some things had improved, the homes had closed. Still a lot of hardship and stigma for women. And little things, like the people who stopped speaking to me, or crossed the road to avoid me. I didn’t mind that personally, they were never my people. It only bothers me cosmically, for how it hurts the web.
It was none of it easy of course, and you certainly wouldn’t expect that. What you expected and got, was blatant judgement and discrimination. Like when it came to finding a place to live. Because I found places. It was only when I told them I was pregnant that they changed their minds. They were red-faced, embarrassed of course, caught out while having a flirt, but adamant, no room at the inn My friends thought I shouldn’t have told them but I couldn’t do that could I? With winter coming. And I could have moved home, which we did six years later, but it would have meant giving up college, and I wasn’t about to do that. Besides which I was young, and I loved Dublin. One of the happiest times in my life was when my daughter was little, before she started school, when it was just the two of us.
You know people are fond of saying that you find out who your friends are in hard times, but that isn’t true. You don’t find them in something poetic like illness. Oh please, that’s too easy. You’ve been sick or someone died and you think you live in a great community? Wait till something unpopular happens, see what support you have then. It will be much less than you think. But what you get will at least be real and indestructible. I’ve found this more than once in life. You do need people, but only a few.
By 1995, to be pregnant and single was still to be cast from the village. Just not as far as before. Mainly I heard that my life was over. And that most men wouldn’t want me now. Oh really... Luckily, for me and my children, that’s precisely the kind of man I wouldn’t want either.
At this time a lot of women had abortions for the only bad, and I use the word lightly, reason I know. Not because it was what they wanted but because of what their family would think, because of what their community would think, because it would hurt the older, conservative, religious people that they loved. Or, because they were afraid, of partners, family, society, or how they’d survive. And they were right to be afraid, of course they were.
Now in 2017 things have improved again, at least socially. Pregnancy outside of marriage is no longer the scandal it was even twenty two years ago. It barely raises an eyebrow now. The majority of Irish people support abortion at least in some cases, and the referendum will I believe pass. But we are still cast out in other ways.
Under the 8th amendment the rights of pregnant women are equal to the foetus from the moment of conception. But if you’ve ever been pregnant and had children here you know your rights are second to the foetus. Whether they have their children or not, this is no country for pregnant women. And if you know anything at all you’ll know about child poverty and how single parents in this country are still disproportionately discriminated against in welfare and the workplace, still judged negatively, and more likely to be living in poverty.
Every year thousands travel to England for abortion. even with risk of prosecution, seven years longer in Ireland than the sentence for rape. Women always have, and always will have abortions. The only difference is whether it’s legal and safe, or backstreet and dangerous. But our current laws work best for those who can afford to go.
I’m not without compassion for those who mean well and are genuinely against abortion for good-hearted reasons. I’m not pro-abortion and I don’t think anyone is, I’m pro-choice. But being good-hearted isn’t enough. We have to think critically, look at the facts, and I know you’re not getting statistics here but they’re out there for anyone who wants them. Plus for too many, being anti-abortion is about control, political control, votes, and control of women, like we’re seeing in America right now.
The greatest insult is the idea that women would use abortion like birth control. Are you well? Though even if I’m wrong it’s still up to her. It’s not like popping out to the grocery store. Are you aware of how women feel about, oh I don’t know, smear tests? A cancer screening, free, potentially life-saving, socially acceptable norm? A quick procedure that the world agrees is right and important. They hate it to the point that many still can’t bring themselves to go, and for those who do it’s something they have to get through, for a good cause, their lives. And you think women are flitting off to have abortions like it’s nothing? Trust women. That’s what you have to do.
Or maybe you think they should give the baby up for adoption? That’s one really beggars belief. Go through pregnancy, visible, vulnerable, centre of attention and gossip, answering all the questions, like when you’re due, and if you’re hoping for a girl or a boy? Then there’s work or college considerations, judgement, not to mention the physical and mental implications of pregnancy, of labour, and the toll afterwards? All the cost. You would ask them to be that brave, in themselves and in this world we’ve got?
When was the last time you were that brave?
Sacrificed your job, body, prospects, mental health, identity, status, reputation, the feelings of your family? What most people ask of women is not something they would do themselves. I’ve seen people lose their minds over basic idle gossip, because something was going to ‘come out.’ But I’ve never seen a person ready to hand over a spare organ to keep someone else alive, even a child. Even though that’s something that would be applauded. They’d write features about you, you might even get an award. It would be a much easier process too. How many of us even give blood? The trouble is women are expected to live only for others, to be givers only. We’re not here for pleasure you know, at least not our own.
The choice has to be with the woman, the only one without whom there is no baby. I will never understand how anyone who has been to the labour ward can think any different. That we should force that on people who for whatever reason don’t want to go, and there are many, many reasons. But I know there are those who do think that, and I know I’m not going to change them. I’m only speaking for myself, and those who feel this way but can’t speak. And if you’re on the fence, then maybe to you.
As the mother of three girls I don’t want to live in a country that would let them die, or keep them artificially alive as happened last year, in favour of the unborn. And I don’t want them to have children under the 8th Amendment either. Because we know that ‘so long as the baby is alright’ is all that matters here in attitude and law. Under the 8th you have no say, you are a piece of meat, and you are treated that way. Three times I was treated that way. The second time I was lucky to survive. And it’s ok, I’m only traumatised for life. The babies were fine.
I find it ironic that many opposed to abortion will talk about the right to life and then say there is no right to healthcare. Well there is no right to life in my view. Any of us are only lucky to be here. The odds of being born are minuscule in the first place, the dangers infinite. It’s the living who have a right to a life, and a decent life at that, with a social floor beneath which no one is allowed to fall.
Am I glad I’m here? I’m delighted. I thank my parents, especially my mother. But would it matter had I not been born? No, of course not. Someone else would have been.
Abortion to me is a class issue, and a control issue. Who is affected the most? Women, poor women mostly, and children. Making abortion illegal increases premature death and the daily, relentless suffering, of women and children. As for the lost potential of the unborn my thinking is what about the potential of the born? What about the misery of the living? Our duty to the living?
As I said if you truly are against abortion I’m not going to convince you, I’m not trying to. But if you’re on the fence I urge you to read more and think more on the subject. And if you do support the liberalisation of our abortion laws, especially if you have first hand knowledge, like a medical professional, then please speak about it. I found it difficult enough to write this so I know for anyone who has had an abortion or lost a child it’s even worse. It’s an emotional subject as well as a critical issue.
I want to thank the women who have so bravely spoken out about their experiences and who are on the frontline fighting the cause for us all. Whether it’s our sisters in Saudi Arabia who have only now earned the right to drive, or our sisters in Iran who are fighting against compulsory hijab, being dragged into vans and beaten by ‘morality police.’ Or in America where women’s rights are being eroded. It’s all connected. It’s all part of our fight for equality, for our rights as living breathing human beings. We can never take the changes that have already come for granted. I would never be that naive or complacent about anything. Nothing is ever given willingly, especially freedom. And as we see in America today, what is won can be taken away, so long as women are not equal. So to those on that frontline I just want to say, I see you, I hear you, I appreciate you very much. No more casting out of women, never give up the fight.
This is a post I’ve been trying to write for some time. After attending the 6th Annual March for Choice in Dublin on Saturday last I finally managed to write it. It was an inspiring, powerful, and up-lifting day. I’m proud to have been a part of it, and also to have marched with my daughter last year. It’s time to repeal.