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Culture

Secrecy, shame and stigma of abortion: The women that Ireland abandoned

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Irish citizens will go to the polls on May 25 to vote on whether to repeal the country's Eighth Amendment, which gives equal legal right to life to a mother and an unborn fetus. Meet the women who have been failed by this archaic law.

Anna Freeman

24 Mayo 2018 17:48

*Cathy, from rural Ireland, was 28 years old when she fell pregnant after a faulty condom broke. She had been dating her partner - who had became increasingly verbally abusive - for just six months. The couple were not ready to have a child and booked a flight to London for Cathy to have an abortion. ‘I didn’t want to be attached to this man I didn’t know very well; a man who was angry that I had even involved him in the pregnancy at all,’ Cathy tells me. ‘No one was looking out for me. No one supported me. I felt abandoned and degraded by the world - and Ireland.’

Cathy can recall the 50 minute journey across the Irish sea vividly. She trained to become a midwife at St. George’s Hospital in Wandsworth, London, as a student and had incredibly positive memories of the UK capital. But this journey 14 years ago marked an entirely different - yet pivotal - moment in her life. Once on English soil, Cathy visited a Marie Stopes abortion clinic alone because her partner refused to join her.

The procedure was painful; but the emotional toil was worse. She returned to Ireland in severe pain, too afraid to go to the doctor for a medical check-up. At the same time, her partner became physically abusive and started repeatedly hitting her in the stomach. Cathy left him - the only person who, at that time, knew the ordeal she had been through.

‘I have never felt more alone than in that moment,’ Cathy says while sobbing on the phone. ‘I never thought I would get pregnant and have an abortion. I have dedicated my career to helping women bring life into this world. I felt guilty. I was so angry. It tore me apart. I still don’t regret having an abortion to this day - it was the right thing for me - but I haven’t been able to move on because of the stigma. The silence. Being called a murderer by my fellow Irish citizens.’

Women campaigning to repeal the Eighth Amendment/Reuters

Secrecy, shame and stigma: the women whose country abandoned them

On average, nine women travel abroad from Ireland everyday to have an abortion. A further three are thought to buy illegal abortion pills on the internet daily. Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the developed world. Termination of pregnancy is illegal in almost all cases - except when there is a ‘real and substantial risk’ to the mother’s life - and women are forced to travel some 200 kilometres to the neighbouring British isles for the procedure, or further.

Tomorrow, on May 25, the Irish public will go to the polls and vote in a referendum that could repeal the island’s Eighth Amendment: an act written into the Irish constitution that essentially recognises the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. To put it bluntly, a woman or teenager who is raped in Ireland must have the baby unless she or the fetus is dying.

The Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983 by way of a referendum spearheaded by Irish conservatives. It was not created to make abortion illegal; this was already unequivocally the case since 1861. What it did do is come to represent a symbolic victory against a growing secularism in the typically Catholic country. At the time, it passed with 67 per cent of the vote. Pro-choice campaigners are hoping tomorrow a mandate of the same magnitude will reverse such an archaic and unjust law.

It has been nearly a decade-and-half since Cathy made the journey that 3,000 women make each year, but it is still a past trauma she is constantly forced to relive because of Ireland’s hostile culture of shame - and the recent pro-life, anti-choice referendum campaigning, which has resorted to banners of fetuses in the womb and mutilated babies. While working as a midwife in one hospital, Cathy confided in a colleague about her experience and was subsequently bullied for her decision to end her pregnancy by other co-workers and was forced to leave the job. Cathy’s family, who are strictly Catholic, also offered no solace in her time of need.

‘My own mother said I had ruined my life. And that she would be voting “No” in the referendum. People have failed me; that is what is making me angry. This past week, seeing posters of fetuses plastered across the country, and women calling me a murderer, I have felt suicidal. Unable to cope. If the country votes "Yes" tomorrow, I will feel free from the prison I have been in for the last 14 years.’

Performing an abortion in Ireland itself carries a 14-year prison sentence, even in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality, and for children under the age of sexual consent. The United Nations recently denounced Irish abortion laws as ‘cruel and inhumane’. The Eighth Amendment created an environment where women were ostracised and shamed; not to be trusted to make the right decision, and that a collection of cells in the womb have as much value as the living, breathing human carrying them.

Anti-choice, pro-life nuns campaign to keep the Eighth Amendment

The inequality of foreign abortions

The hypocrisy of the law is also what particularly stings for those opting ‘to travel’ (now a euphemism for having an abortion in Ireland). Basically, as long as it doesn’t happen on Irish soil, it’s fine. There is even an abortion suite at Liverpool Women's clinic called 'The Shamrock'. The existence of accessible services in Britain and beyond feeds into a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ society. Almost every woman in Ireland will most likely know someone who has had an oversees abortion, they just don’t know it.

Two amendments were added to the Eighth a decade after its inception that made it legal for women to travel abroad for a termination, and to return to Ireland after, which begs the question: why is the state failing women at home in Ireland, and entrusting foreign governments with the care of its citizens?

*Sinead, who no longer lives in Ireland, caught a colossal 13-hour flight all the way to Los Angeles, California, to have a termination. She had temporarily lived with a man, whom she had a sexual relationship with, in LA for a few months while backpacking around the world. When Sinead returned to Ireland, she found out that she was pregnant. ‘I felt physically sick’, she tells me, ‘I had to lie through my teeth at the clinic in LA after I got off the flight just so they would let me have it. There were anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic doors when I got there. It was a nightmare. I just felt so alone, so far from home. But after the procedure, I felt so much relief. It was the right decision. But do I resent the whole fucking country for abandoning me sometimes? Yes I do.’

This is just one of the countless stories of women failed by the Irish State. And although no woman should be forced to travel to another country to have a termination, these are considered the lucky ones. Inequality greatly exasperates Ireland’s near-total ban on terminations. The women who can afford or scrape together enough money ‘to travel’ are in a more privileged position, relatively speaking, than those who feel the full weight of the Eighth Amendment: the women in severe poverty, migrants without visas, the sick, those escaping abusive relationships, for example.

Mara Clarke founded the Abortion Support Network (ASN) in the UK in 2009 to provide financial assistance and accommodation to disenfranchised women travelling from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man to the UK. The charity focuses on those who cannot, for whatever reason, make their own arrangements of travel to Britain for a termination. ‘Our phone never stops ringing,’ Mara says, ‘We try and help everyone we can but it keeps me up at night thinking about all the people we can’t help because they don’t know about us. I couldn't count the number of times I have cried in this job.’

Mara recalls one 12-year-old girl and her mother using their service - getting a passport, flights, accommodation - to abort the fetus before anyone in their family and community became aware. ‘We must be the only organisation where a miscarriage is the best news ever. I never want to see a 12-year-old needing an abortion here again,’ Mara adds. Although repealing the Eighth could make ASN obsolete - which Mara would welcome - she thinks there will still be demand for their services. It is doubtful that legislation in Ireland would be as liberal as in the UK, therefore this will most likely remain a reality for many Irish women.

The referendum has awoken a generation of female activists in Ireland/Reuters

The legacy of Miss X and Savita Halappanavar

Two landmark cases changed collective thinking about abortion in Ireland. In 1992, a 14-year-old girl known as Miss X, pregnant and suicidal as a result of rape, was forced to go to the Supreme Court after the State intervened to block her from travelling for an abortion. And the tragic 2012 case of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who died after a painful septic miscarriage after requesting a termination — but was refused on the grounds that a fetal heartbeat could still be detected. She died aged 31 from a cardiac arrest.

The referendum tomorrow goes beyond the Church vs. the State, and leaps across generational, class, and social divides. It is about humanity and equal rights. No woman should die at the hands of medical professionals whose hands are tied by a cruel and inhumane constitution. No one should be abandoned by their country’s medical system. A vote to repeal the Eighth is as much about right to fair and just care as it is about the changing identity of Ireland. It is illustrative of a country in a state of flux; abandoning outdated traditionalism in embrace of inclusivity, pluralism - and love.

Tomorrow’s vote is also part of a wider commentary on women’s rights in Ireland. The referendum comes off the back of the #MeToo movement and there has been an extraordinary awakening on the Green Isle that women deserve more. No longer will they skulk in the shadows of their oppressors. Women want choice. Regardless of whether the 'Yes’ or ‘No' vote wins tomorrow, Ireland and its women will never be the same again.

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