My French students can’t believe Irish women travel for abortions
People have sex younger here but they are more mature in their attitudes
‘In my old job I would have to guide frantic students through the steps of either keeping a baby, putting a baby up for adoption or, if needs be, organising a clandestine, secret trip to England for a termination.’ Photograph: iStock/Getty Images
I was heavily pregnant in Bordeaux when the marriage equality referendum was held in 2015, and was not permitted to travel home to vote. But I remember feeling such a surge of pride that Ireland was paving the way for equal rights. It made me feel closer to home than a pastiche Irish pub over here ever could, to see Ireland breaking away from our ecumenical past, and embracing citizens’ individual rights to follow their personal path all the way to the alter if they wished. It was exciting.
When I lived in London, I could fly home to vote in elections, and still heard Irish accents all over town. In southwest France however, the demographic is quite different. I am surrounded, for the most part, by French natives or British, for whom the abortion referendum debate currently going on in Ireland seems abstract, distant, and inhumane.
When I talk to my French students in our ethics class, they are puzzled by the fact that the Irish Constitution has a reference to “unborn” children, or that an abortion in Ireland can today still cost a woman 14 years in prison. To them sex, sex education and sexuality is treated more in line with the Dutch model of pragmatic accountability.
Kids here are sexually active at a younger age, but they are also far cooler, calmer and mature about sex. To them an abortion is a very unfortunate, very personal but sometimes necessary medical procedure that is no one’s business but the two people involved in creating that pregnancy.
They don’t view it as contraception on-demand, they don’t laugh or shrug or judge anyone who has one. They get the gravity; they have grannies who frown and bless themselves. They still love babies and family and, like the French state as I have found it, believe every child must be nurtured, cared and protected throughout childhood and not just at the prenatal stage, regardless of the circumstances.
They are young, educated and eager to understand the world, and say motherhood is a great blessing (the French give birth younger than the Irish). But it is a choice. The personal right to decide is even more inherently French than the right to the termination itself.
The students I talked to are not much older than I was when I became welfare officer at Trinity College Dublin. Here in the secular French republic, an abortion is available up to 12 weeks with - and I admire this - a mandatory week of reflection. But they are still wide eyed and, frankly, alarmed, when I explain that in my old job I would have to guide frantic students through the steps of either keeping a baby, putting a baby up for adoption or, if needs be, organising a clandestine, secret trip to England for a termination. They don’t believe me.
But they should. I have seen the clinics for myself on such trips. I have spoken to the nurses and supported Irish women in their journey. I never saw anyone walk in those doors with anything but the deepest, fundamental awareness that they were making a life choice that no one else could make for them.
For some, it was the only option that made sense for them, at that moment in their lives. It was sad, it was personal but it was their decision to make; it was my job to inform and support them.
These students in France have not been born, like I was in the 1980s, with the moral eye of the Catholic Church watching over them. As a Catholic myself, with members of my Irish family high-up in the Catholic Church over the years, I grew up believing this was just the way Ireland was. Who was I to question the rights of anyone or anything?
Now I am an Irish mother, raising a daughter in a foreign country, who believes women must be informed, supported but ultimately, and most critically, respected in deciding how and when they choose to embrace the blessing of motherhood. Come June 2018, we will see if Ireland feels the same.
Stephanie Irwin is an Irish writer based in Bordeaux, France. Info on her published novels and ebooks available at stephanieirwin.wix.com/2015