Just a women’s issue? Eight men discuss how abortion has impacted their lives
Men’s experiences are rarely included in the debate but with a referendum on the horizon this may change
Peter Twomey holding baby Alexandra with his partner Claire Woods at their home in Portobello, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Debates and discussions on abortion in Ireland rarely include men’s experiences. The fact is, though, that for every one of the 170,000 people from Ireland who travelled abroad for terminations since 1980 – mostly women but also some trans men – a man was involved at some stage in the story.
Those who have abortions are the only ones who can be directly and physically impacted by abortion, but there are many ways men can be affected too. Here, eight men share their experiences and offer views on what they see as the man’s role when it comes to the abortion debate.
Some have supported partners or friends through abortion decisions, others have felt left out of or disagreed with their partner’s choices and some are activists involved in the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
‘Men should be the hand that’s held, the shoulder that’s cried on’
“As a man I’m sort of reluctant to talk about this because it’s fundamentally a woman’s issue,” says Irish Times journalist Peter Murtagh.
In 2013 his wife Moira Murtagh wrote a letter to The Irish Times in which she spoke about an abortion that she had undergone 20 years earlier. She was 44 at the time, the births of their two previous children had been difficult and she did not want to be pregnant again.
“It was very much her decision but very much supported by me. I didn’t disagree with it at all. It was for the best for our family that she took this route and she did so at a very early stage,” says Murtagh.
As he sees it, a man’s role in abortion is a supportive one, to be part of the decision but not the driving force behind it, “to be the hand that’s held, the shoulder that’s cried on and to come out the other side feeling content with the decision and not regretting it”.
In her letter Moira wrote about her anger at the plight of the other Irish women with her on the ward of the London clinic who were alone and upset. They did not have the “luxury” of their partner being with them as she did. They were going through the experience in a furtive and secretive way.
“I think it was something that impacted her powerfully … she did think, what sort of a country am I living in that deals in these things this way?” recalls Murtagh. While he believes it is the woman’s right to decide whether or not she can continue with a pregnancy, Murtagh says that does not mean that a man is not emotionally affected by the decision.
“I would say it’s not so much that men have a right to be emotional about abortion, I think you are deficient if you are not emotional and if you don’t express emotion,” he says.
‘I couldn’t understand it. She was after terminating a pregnancy and the look of happiness and relief on her face’
Nearly 20 years ago, when Joe (he did not want his full name used) was 23, his partner at the time became pregnant. She told Joe that she did not want to have the child, that she was worried about what her mother might say and that she wanted to have an abortion.
The now 42-year-old public transport driver from Dublin did not feel the same, but went along with his partner’s plans to go to an abortion clinic in Liverpool for the procedure.
“I was told it was nothing got to do with me. I was told by my ex-partner and by members of my own family, that it was the girl’s decision. So I travelled to Liverpool with my ex-partner. I didn’t support her decision but I wanted to be there for her, so that’s why I went,” he says.
“She was after terminating a life and the look of relief and happiness on her face… that’s what killed me”
The couple stayed overnight in accommodation close to the abortion clinic and Joe says he tried to convince his former girlfriend to reconsider until the last minute. He remembers how relieved she seemed after the procedure and how her relief jarred with his own feelings.
“I remember it to this very day and I couldn’t understand it, you know, the happiness. She was after terminating a life and the look of relief and happiness on her face… that’s what killed me, you know?”
Five years ago Joe and his wife, who is from Spain, were given the terrible news that their unborn baby would not survive outside the womb. Joe says they spoke about their options and he worried about what might happen if his wife wanted to have an abortion.
“I didn’t want my relationship to break down with my wife because I had seen the way having an abortion affected my ex-partner, I didn’t want to go through that with my wife.”
The couple decided that Joe’s wife would carry their baby to full-term. Their daughter survived for an hour after she was born and Joe says they took comfort in being able to dress her, to hold her and to bury her.
“My wife, although it was traumatic for the both of us, she swears that going to full term and being able to hold the baby helped her through the grief,” he says.
It’s about the rights of people and the rights of the unborn and what we’re saying to the people is, let’s vote on removing their rights
The experience was deeply upsetting, but Joe says it was the right decision for them.
“It was extremely difficult, but there’s always hope. I personally didn’t want to have it in my head, what if? What if the doctors got it wrong? Because they can get it wrong.”
He does not believe there should be a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. “It’s about the rights of people and the rights of the unborn and what we’re saying to the people is, let’s vote on removing their rights.”
Joe says his ex-partner’s abortion affected him for many years and he regrets not being stronger about having his say at the time. He is anti-abortion because of his experiences with his wife and his ex-partner.
“It’s about the effects [of abortion] that I’ve seen on women and I’ve seen the two sides and the effects that were felt. That would be one of the reasons that I don’t agree with abortion. Plus, I don’t agree with terminating life as well.”
‘Are we going to be their allies? Or pretend it’s nothing got to do with us?’
Not long after Gerry Edwards and his wife, Gaye, celebrated their first wedding anniversary in 2000, they found out that their first baby had a condition that was “incompatible with life”.
The couple got the news when they went for their 20-week scan. “We didn’t even know it was an anomaly scan,” recalls Edwards, who is the chairperson of the Terminations for Medical Reasons (TMFR) group.
“I didn’t notice the room change. I didn’t notice that as the scan progressed, the talking had stopped and the student had left,” he says.
The sonographer called the obstetrician who came in and began taking measurements in silence, as the couple’s fear slowly rose.
“We were brought into another room with the armchairs and the box of tissues and the soft light and I thought, ‘ah shit, this isn’t good’,” says Edwards.
Joshua, as they would later name their baby, had anencephaly, meaning his skull and brain were not developing properly and he would not survive.
“There was only going to be a dire outcome for our baby. [The obstetrician] said, ‘we can continue to monitor your pregnancy and that’s all we can do in this jurisdiction’. That was kind of like him leaving a little breadcrumb for us, a trail of one, to try and find our way out,” he says.
The couple visited their GP who walked them through their options.
“He knew us well and he actually said to us at the end that it’s like being presented with two buckets of shite and told to take your pick. It wasn’t like this was a good option and this was a bad one. They were both tragic.”
Next, they went to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for a second opinion but were delivered the same prognosis – baby Joshua would not live. Gaye decided she could not continue with the pregnancy and so, at 22 weeks, her labour was induced in Belfast because she could not be offered the same medical treatment 170km away at home in Dublin.
Even though it was a difficult decision for them to make, Gerry and Gaye have never regretted terminating their first pregnancy. Tearing his devastated wife away from their dead son and leaving him behind in Belfast after Gaye was discharged from hospital was horrendous, however.
“I don’t think I ever felt more abandoned or angry towards Ireland as because of that,” says Edwards.
As a man, he feels he has no right to dictate whether a woman can or cannot have an abortion, but he does have “permission to support that decision, to support her right and any woman’s right to make that decision”.
When it comes to a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, he says it is a simple case of deciding whether or not you are an ally of the women in your life in their fight for access to full reproductive healthcare.
“Are we going to be their allies, stand with them and amplify their message? Or, are we going to stand back and pretend it’s nothing got to do with us? I think that it would be the downfall of women if we do that and it’ll be the downfall of men if we allow it to happen.”
‘I was always of the view that I could go ahead with an abortion’
Twice, Peter Twomey and his girlfriend Claire Woods booked hospital appointments and flights to Manchester for an abortion and twice they cancelled the trip.
In their early 20s, dating for a few years and planning a future together, the couple forked out €500 for an IUD, one of the most reliable forms of contraception.
Five months later Claire was pregnant. This was not part of the plan.
“It was a complete shock to both of us. We were both just a year out of college,” says Twomey.
“We were given a lifeline by the doctor who said that 50 per cent of pregnancies that happen with an IUD result in an ectopic pregnancy and would have to be terminated.”
A scan at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin revealed that this was not the case with Claire’s pregnancy and so they would have to decide for themselves what to do next. They sought counselling and saw three options: have the baby, have an abortion, or have the baby and give it up for adoption.
“We’d discussed [abortion] before Claire had gotten pregnant and I was always of the view that I could go ahead with an abortion… so Claire knew my viewpoint.”
In the end, Twomey says it was clear that abortion was not the right option for Claire and he believed that if she went ahead with it that “it would ultimately ruin her life. She wouldn’t have been able to deal with the inner turmoil… for me, that was much worse than going ahead with [the pregnancy].”
They decided that they would go down the route of adoption, cancelled their second planned trip to Manchester and spoke to their families.
“We had amazing support from both families. I had a good job so financially I could support us and over the months we just quietly realised to ourselves that adoption wasn’t an option for us. We could make this work,” says Twomey.
Baby Alexandra was born in February 2016 and Twomey says they are delighted with the decision they made, but he acknowledges that he and Claire came at it from a position of privilege. They had a supportive family, he had a good job and while they were young, they could make it work for those reasons.
We had the full set of options available to us and there are many people in Ireland who do not have that
His own experience has cemented his pro-choice views.
“Once the situation presented itself and it affected me directly I thought about [abortion] more and more. It made the injustices of the current system very clear and we were very lucky not to suffer from those injustices. We had the full set of options available to us and there are so many people in Ireland who do not have that,” he says.
‘I still have feelings for her and for me to have a child with her would have been a beautiful thing’
Nearly 20 years ago, unbeknownst to Tom (not his real name), his then-girlfriend of two years became pregnant with his child and decided that she needed an abortion.
“I called her to check in with her and she told me that she had gotten pregnant by me and that she had had an abortion without telling me. That was very hard for me to hear and to take because I didn’t get a chance to discuss it with her before she made that decision,” he says.
I would have liked to have the chance just to give her my point of view
Tom would have asked his girlfriend to reconsider if he had had the chance. He would have asked her to continue with the pregnancy and to allow him to raise the child alone if needs be.
“She didn’t allow that to happen, which I think is very unfair. Of course at the end of the day it’s her body and it’s her choice to do what she wants to do with her own body. It’s not for me to tell her what to do, but I would have liked to have the chance just to give her my point of view,” he says.
Almost two decades later he is “still sad about it. For me, this girl was, is, the love of my life. I still have feelings for her and for me to have a child with her would have been a beautiful thing.”
Tom says abortion is not a black and white issue and while he is personally against it, he believes that as a man his opinion is immaterial because only a woman should be allowed to decide what happens to her body.
“I could be anti-abortion but that’s irrelevant because I am not a woman. I shouldn’t be part of the conversation because I am not a woman. It is for a woman to decide what to do with her body and nobody else.”
‘The ultimate decision lies with the woman but it doesn’t mean that men are not deeply engaged’
“If we simply say that abortion is a woman’s issue then we disrespect the human experience of so many men who have been involved in these kinds of situations,” says Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole.
There are two great silences in the abortion debate, he says: those of the women who have had them and those of the men who have supported these women.
“The ultimate decision lies with the woman but it doesn’t mean that men are not emotionally, psychologically and practically, deeply engaged in these decisions,” he says.
O’Toole’s personal views on abortion have been shaped by a number of moments in his life, the first when he was an 18-year-old college student and the 16-year-old sister of his best male friend became pregnant.
Because O’Toole was one of the few people from his part of Dublin who was in college, the family assumed that he would know how to find out about arranging an abortion and asked for his help. Nobody in 1970s Ireland spoke about abortion and until then he had no sense of where he stood on the issue.
“I remember very clearly that I suddenly knew exactly what I felt about abortion, because it did not occur to me for one moment that if I could help in any way that I would not,” he says.
Abortion is a question about life, it’s about what happens in people’s lives
O’Toole believes that few men would force a pregnant person to have a baby they do not want because “they are compassionate and loving people who think that is just an outrageous thing to do and would never do it”.
For many who face a crisis pregnancy there are husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers and grandfathers who support them. O’Toole says we must hear their voices.
“What they do is they remind us that this is not an abstract question. Abortion is a question about life, it’s about what happens in people’s lives and for most people you would hope that they are not alone.”
‘You are alienating supporters if you say a man’s voice is not valid in the campaign’
Forty-year-old IT manager Lorcan Nagle is an activist with the Abortion Rights Campaign (Arc). He has always been pro-choice but after the death of Savita Halappanavar he realised that if he wanted to see Ireland’s abortion law liberalised, then he had to do something about it.
“I sort of thought, I don’t have to do anything, it will all work out. But then a woman died and I started to learn more about the Eighth Amendment, both in terms of restricting rights to abortion but also maternity rights, in that a woman becomes a second class citizen as soon as she becomes pregnant and that motivated me,” he says.
Nagle says men should know that they can support the women in their lives by speaking out on abortion.
“I don’t have as much say as a woman or a trans person who may be pregnant, but I do have some say if it is my wife’s pregnancy. You are alienating a significant number of supporters if you say that a man’s voice is not also valid in the campaign.”
It’s about compassion. It’s about doing the right thing
Fellow Arc activist Niall became involved in the pro-choice campaign after he and his wife moved back to Ireland from the US earlier this year.
The 33-year-old, who works in the tech sector, says they quickly became involved in activism around the amendment, also spurred by the death of Halappanavar.
“I thought, this poor woman has died through no fault of her own. Coming back to Ireland and seeing the momentum that was there, I thought, let’s see what we can do to help roll it along.”
For Niall, the most important message to portray is that abortion is not just a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue upon which women need men’s support.
“It’s about compassion. It’s about doing the right thing. If I can look back in 20 years and say that I was part of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, I will be very proud.”
The annual March for Choice Dublin, organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign (Arc), takes place on Saturday, September 30th, assembling at the Garden of Remembrance at 1:30pm and marching towards the Dáil at 2pm. Arc, which advocates for free, safe and legal abortion services in Ireland, will lead the march, joined by more than 20 of the organisation’s regional groups from across the country. Speeches will be made at Merrion Square after the march. Among those speaking will be Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Gerry and Gaye Edwards of Terminations for Medical Reasons, poet and trans rights activist Matt Kennedy, Kate McGrew of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland and representatives from Migrant and Ethnic-Minorities for Reproductive Justice. Comedian and actor Tara Flynn will act as MC. An after-party fundraiser co-hosted by Mother will take place in Opium Wexford Street from 5pm-10pm. For more information visit abortionrightscampaign.ie