didn’t set out to become a face of the Repeal the Eighth campaign. She was just a woman, she says, who had a crisis pregnancy — and wrote a play about it.
‘I was really surprised. I expected it to be shouty and declamatory and extreme but it wasn’t like that at all. It was funny!”
A man in his late fifties or early sixties has clearly been dragged to Not A Funny Word against his will. It’s the one-woman show based on my own real-life story of having to travel for an abortion, and he’s at the work in progress version staged at the Abbey in 2017.
It’s followed by a Q&A with me and our director, Phillip McMahon. This audience member is one of the first to raise his hand and I’m relieved and flattered at his response. Mine to him?
“Thank you. And now we need to talk about why you’re so surprised it wasn’t extreme.”
For the longest time here in Ireland, we didn’t say the A-word at all. It was completely taboo. Even saying you were pro-choice, pro someone else’s right to make decisions for themselves, was seen as radical and confronting. I hadn’t even discussed it with my own mother, so when I got pregnant in 2006 (despite having taken a morning after pill barely eight hours after the non-event) I didn’t know who I could turn to.
I became like a secret agent, ferreting out information, doing research and getting a crash course on reproductive healthcare, alone and undercover. I ended up going to the Netherlands, flying back the same day. I couldn’t afford to stay over. It was isolating, stigmatising, scary. But the care I got at the clinic in Utrecht, the non-judgemental compassion of the medical professionals, is with me still. The injustice of not being able to get that care here is also still with me. Once home, all I had to do was to lie to everyone forever; then everything would be all right, everything would be normal.
But our situation isn’t normal; it’s not even in line with the basics of international human rights law or medical best practice. We’ve heard that over and over again and we all know someone (even if we don’t realise it), but it wasn’t until some of us broke the silence that the conversation seemed to move. I once told my story anonymously to a journalist and it ended up in a national newspaper. Nothing. No shift, no change. Then in 2015, fed up with the hypocrisy that constitutionally allows us to travel for this procedure but leaves us to continue a pregnancy we can’t cope with if we can’t, I told my story in public. Put my name and face to it. It can seem to be all I’m asked to do these days. That can be a strange contract to have with the world.
People come up to me now and share their own stories (we all know someone). Others aren’t backwards about coming forwards with unflattering opinions. That’s OK. Their rights and values are already protected and would continue to be should our laws change following repeal of the 8th amendment. Mostly, people are confused by conflicting stuff in the media where ‘both extremes’ are pitted against each other in debates you could easily script in advance. You could definitely play debate bingo or a pretty dangerous drinking game. (‘Floodgates!’ *does shot*.)
I’ve found myself front and centre as, based on evidence, facts and listening with an open mind, more and more people realise that pro-choice is the middle ground, the non-judgemental ground, the acknowledging reality ground. Abortion is already here, being undertaken every day: when someone can’t cope with a pregnancy they will leave, or take illegal pills without medical supervision, or put themselves at risk taking matters into their own hands. I’m not sure what I’d have done if I hadn’t been able to travel for help. I might not be here.
I was always careful, certain it couldn’t happen to me. Maybe that’s what I can lend to the campaign: my ‘It Happened To Me-ness’. The shock. The fear. The realising you’re a second-class citizen and that everyone knows it, really, but chooses to look away (“Look! A bird! A dog with a puffy tail!”).
Since putting my head above the parapet and saying it happened to me, I’ve found myself not just involved in the campaign, but having commentators remove my humanity to an extent. I’m ‘just a campaigner’, ‘hardline’, ‘shrill’. I know I’m not, but that’s an impression you might get by pitting someone with lived experience against someone for whom it’s merely theoretical, someone who might not always come with facts.
I don’t think I’m a great campaigner, though I’m certainly willing and it’s far too urgent to back away now. But I’m a decent enough actor and writer. From the moment I travelled, I wanted to put the experience into my work; my comfort zone, my way of processing, healing. But it was too taboo. Until recently. Now I’ve made a piece that not only explores the moral quandaries and terror generated by facing a crisis pregnancy in Ireland, but does it in a funny way. My way. The way I cope. And guess what? It turns out Not A Funny Word helps some other people to process, too.
There’s no lecturing in it: there’s a person. A sometimes funny, messy person, but a rounded one all the same. Not ‘just a campaigner’ - whatever that is - but someone who doesn’t want to debate her life, simply to tell it and give others space to reflect. Plus laughs. Plus songs.
I’d love to do Not A Funny Word all over the country. We need a break from the confrontational, nuance-free way traditional media pose these questions. We need to be able to breathe. To think. It’s not 1983 anymore. Crisis pregnancy isn’t funny – it happened to me, I should know. But every time I do this show, a few more of the wounds left on me by stigma and hypocrisy heal.
I’d love you to come. You might be surprised.
- Not a Funny Word is at the Everyman, April 26 at 8pm.