ALISON O'CONNOR: No one among circle of friends willing to admit they had abortion

No woman has ever told me she had an abortion. I find that quite amazing.

I’m female. I’m Irish. I’m the mother of two young children. I’m broad minded, liberal, empathetic. Or, at least I think that I am. Perhaps that’s not how others see me. Maybe I come across as moralistic, judgemental and unsympathetic.

I’m 44. I’ve been in that child bearing “space” for a couple of decades now. If you consider that roughly one in ten women in Ireland has had an abortion — that’s an estimated 160,000 women since 1980 — I’ve clearly come across at least some of these women.

This is obviously not information I’d be hearing in the supermarket queue (although I have heard some amazing things there from other women in difficult situations over the years). But I’m thinking of various circles of friends, from home, from school, from the toddler playgroup. I’m also thinking of work colleagues who became firm friends. I’m thinking of how I live in an era when the Irish female is relatively comfortable discussing pretty much anything, but when it comes to expressing the deeply personal experience of abortion the subject is simply verboten for women.

As I type I’m feeling naïve — isn’t this the entire point — abortion in Ireland is still a dirty big secret and a shameful thing to admit to having undergone. But how can that shame be so ingrained, so strong, so purely toxic that women in Ireland — the gender that shares virtually every single shred of information with friends, no detail too small — keep it a deep dark secret for the duration of their lives.

I wondered am I typical? Perhaps other women who had undergone terminations simply did not trust me enough to share this highly confidential and personal information.

I decided to conduct an informal poll among friends and acquaintances and see if their experiences were similar. I spoke to 14 women, and from what I gathered during the brief telephone conversations my experience is pretty typical. Seven were in their 40s, two in their 50s, three in their 30s, one in her 60s and one in her 20s.

Interesting the two in their early 50s knew the most abortion “cases”— one said six women and the other four.

They happened over 20 or even 30 years ago, at a time when you didn’t have the services of Google or Ryanair, where you might have been more inclined to or needed to enlist the help of a friend. Five of my phone-a-friends were like me and had never been told by another female that they’d had an abortion. Isn’t that quite incredible?

Some “suspected” they knew someone, the 20-something-year-old knew of just one woman, as did the 60-something year old. One almost 40-year-olds knew of two women, but again those abortions took place well over a decade ago.

As the female in her early 30s told me: “I guess it’s a bit like people being in the Stasi. You just don’t ask or tell. You don’t know where people stand on the issue.”

I always find it interesting that Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant and miscarrying when she presented at at University College Hospital Galway, openly requested an abortion.

My point here being that I simply cannot imagine an Irishwomen openly doing that same in an Irish hospital. The manner in which we have been culturally conditioned since birth means that the shame would be too great.

Of course there is also shame in other countries, and no one shouts about it from the rooftops, but it appears that here there is no greater shame. Even if the prospects of the baby surviving to viability in the womb were virtually nil, the “done thing” would be to suffer it out until the last. It would be an outright failure of the Irish “virtuous motherhood” test. Indeed, as Savita discovered, even when you ask outright, the suffering is allowed to continue.

My thoughts on the issue of shame and secrecy came back to mind last weekend when I listened to some of the experiences of Irishwomen who’d had abortions. I attended a conference in Dublin organised on the theme “Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment”. The coalition involves twelve women’s and civil society organisations calling for Article 40.3.3, relating to abortion, to be taken out of the Constitution.

Needless to say these stories were told anonymously by people who were involved in helping women who travel to the UK for abortions. Mara Clarke is the founder and director of the London-based Abortion Support Network (ASN), which supports women who want an abortion but essentially cannot afford one. She spoke of women in all kinds of situations and what’s stuck with me are the women who discovered they were pregnant early in the summer but who, for financial and childcare reasons, could not travel immediately for an abortion.

So after a summer of child minding, worrying, trying to save money, having a developing foetus growing in their tummies, they travel to the UK in September. They received information and assistance from the ASN. For some, according to Mara, the crisis remains because when they get to the clinic it is only to discover they are actually further along in the pregnancy than they thought, and it’s too late — more than 23 weeks and five days — for them to have an abortion. I guess this resonated particularly with me because I’ve just had a summer of school holidays and have small children that need constant minding.

The difference, of course, is that I’m middle class, have a credit card, a passport, and a relatively well-ordered life. I could arrange a trip to London, or indeed the Netherlands, for an early abortion without too much hassle. What about that woman who has no money, other children to look after, and a fairly chaotic life which she has huge difficulty coping with already? Added to that is the deadly shame of the planned abortion that she dares not share with anyone.

Mara Clarke, back in London this week, said during her last stint with the ASN phone she had it for 11 days. In that time she had spoken to 26 “clients” from Ireland ranging in age from 17 to 37, and from very early pregnancy up to 26 weeks. She said she gave away £3,100 in grants. As she pointed out these women are so desperate they are willing to involve a complete stranger in another country in ending their unwanted pregnancy. At the other end of the spectrum, as I mentioned earlier, are the women like myself who have credit cards, overdrafts and passports, and could handle the vagaries of the Ryanair website even before it got simplified.

What unites them all though, rich or poor, or in between, is the absolute and utter secrecy before and after that still prevails in Ireland. It’s what makes it easier for us as a society not to properly address the 160,000 “elephants’ in the corner of our national sitting room. It’s what gives our politicians the space not to address the issue properly.

How many of the one in 10 women in those politicians’ lives have broken through the shame barrier and shared about their abortion?

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