‘As a woman who has had an abortion, I feel patronised’

Women who have had abortions present their views on the debate about the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill

Photograph: iStockphoto/Thinkstock/Getty

Helen is in her late 40s and lives in Dublin

‘I had an abortion in my early 30s. I would have been a single self-employed parent in a small isolated community that I had recently moved to, and that would not have been the right thing for me then. It was a crisis pregnancy, but I was definitely not suicidal.

“Making the decision was ghastly and traumatic, but I did it because I knew without any doubt it was the right thing for me to do at that time. I am now in my late 40s and, 17 years on, I have never once regretted my decision.

“I think the ongoing debate about the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill is really, essentially, all about control, and trying to continue to control women’s lives.


"The proposed change to the legislation will not make a screed of difference to the thousands of women who will travel to have abortions this year, each of them for their own private reasons. There is not just an elephant in the room, as this debate ignores the fact that there are tens of thousands of Irish women who have had abortions outside Ireland. There is an entire zoo.

“Every time in the past few weeks that I have heard that sanctimonious expression from politicians and pundits who fear the proposed legislation will ‘open the floodgates’, I have wanted to explode. I find that particular expression deeply offensive. It’s as if women are inanimate and brainless and can’t be trusted with our own bodies and our own choices but must be restrained behind these floodgates for our own good.

“I believe that only the woman has the right to decide what happens to her body when she is pregnant. Nobody else does. Not a court of law, not a team of psychiatrists, not the politicians I never voted for and never will. It is my fundamental human right to have control over my body, my choices and my life.

“I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of the Catholic Church that abortion is such a divisive subject in Ireland. We are a society of ostriches who hate to rock the boat.

“I think it has become such a widespread societal norm in this country to consign abortion to a box labelled ‘taboo’, ‘toxic’ and ‘sinful’. From listening closely to the airwaves over the past three weeks, and reading the newspapers, I honestly don’t know how we climb out of this crater of stagnant polarising toxicity when it comes to debating changes to the abortion law in any form.

“As for abortion becoming legal in Ireland, I cannot see that happening in my lifetime, and that makes me utterly depressed.

“As a woman who has had an abortion, I feel patronised, belittled and judged by those who believe I have committed a crime or sinned against a god I don’t believe in. I feel excluded and controlled by a society that is still trying to ignore my existence.

“I feel tainted by those who throw words like grenades at women who have had abortions: words such as ‘execution’, ‘murder’ and ‘killing’. Irish women who have had abortions are doubly invisible because not only would politicians love to think we don’t exist, but society has conspired to make us silent.

"If I allowed my name to be published, I know it would define me for years in a negative way. I have seen it happen others. How can that be right in 2013, in a country that proudly considers itself developed and progressive, and that currently holds the presidency of the Council of European Union?"

Helen's name has been changed

A woman who regrets having an abortion: 'You think you can turn the clock back, but you can't'

Michelle is in her late 40s and from the midlands

"In the early 1980s, at 18, I discovered I was pregnant. I didn't feel it was an option to turn to my family for support. My boyfriend at the time was older and working. He paid for the abortion, and we travelled to London together. We went for a consultation, and the next day I went in for the procedure. I stayed that night and was discharged the next day.

“Immediately after the anaesthetic I felt sad, empty and desolate. I came back and started to work.

“I had my life ahead of me, but the sad feeling wouldn’t go away. Only someone who has lost a child will understand. I recognise it now as grief. I have had 30 years of grief.

“I became very depressed. A few months afterwards I took an overdose and ended up in hospital and survived. Was it a real attempt or a cry for help? It certainly felt real at the time.

“Looking back as a mature adult, I didn’t think things through at the time. I panicked. When you’re in a crisis pregnancy you just want to turn the clock back and put everything back to the way it was.

“You think that by going through this procedure you can turn the clock back, but you can’t. Whether you have the baby or not, life is never going to be the same.

“I believed in a woman’s right to choose, and I still do to a point, but I didn’t know the effect it would have.

“I didn’t discuss it with anybody for years. I married the father of the child, and we had more children, but we never talked about it again. I’m separated now.

“Over the years there have been times when it comes to the surface, and other times it’s less. But it’s always there, a shadow in the background. It’s like a part of me is missing.

“I have four or five friends who know my story, and nobody else would think it to meet me.

“Only in the p ast eight years did I look for counselling. I contacted different organisations and met other women who had had similar experiences. I found a lot with the very same story.

“It is still a major taboo. Even among women who have no regrets about having had abortion there are very few who will come out publicly and say they have had one.

“I don’t feel my voice is represented in the current debate. One of the groups I contacted is called Women Hurt. They told me they asked to speak at the original Oireachtas hearings, but their request was refused.

“I’m a bit shocked by the proposed legislation. I think the suicide clause will lead to abortion on demand. I wasn’t suicidal before my abortion, but if that’s what I had needed to say in order to get it, I would have said it.

“I’m not an expert in psychiatry, but I listened to the expert groups, and I don’t see how abortion can be a treatment for suicidal ideation.

“If someone is genuinely suicidal, that person should get all the help that’s necessary, but I don’t think an abortion is going to help them.

“Whatever about giving women choice, we need to support women.

"Fathers also need to be held accountable. How many women have abortions because they have no support from their partner?"

In conversation with Conor Goodman; Michelle's name has been changed

The case of a pregnancy with foetal abnormalities: 'I have been very angry listening to the debate'

"I am so disappointed that there is nothing in the proposed legislation about pregnancies with foetal abnormalities. In 2010 we went for a scan at 12 weeks, and everything was fine. Then, at the 20-week scan, we discovered the baby had spin a bifida and hydrocephalus" – water on the brain – "and that the kidneys hadn't formed properly. The midwife said it was the worst case of hydrocephalus she had seen. It was my first pregnancy. I was 36.

“I’m English, but I’ve been living in Ireland for 13 years, as my husband is Irish. Growing up in Britain, abortion was a norm for me, knowing that it was there. I didn’t really think about it either way; it’s something that women can choose to have or not.

“My mother remembers when the law was changed in Britain, and how it was welcomed. She had known the daughter of a colleague who had died following a back street abortion, because it wasn’t legal at the time, and it was too expensive to travel out of Britain.

“I decided to have an abortion right away. My decision was very clear , because the diagnosis was so bad and so severe. I was given my medical records to take with me. A week later I was in Birmingham.

“I have been very angry while listening to the debate over the past few weeks.

“Abortion should be down to a person’s choice; you should be able to make that choice. To have that choice taken away from you by law is just terrible.

“It has been awful listening to people saying you should carry a baby with foetal abnormalities to term. I couldn’t imagine getting up every morning wondering whether my baby had died yet . Or people asking you in the supermarket , ‘W hen is it due? Do you know if you are having a boy or a girl?’

“If I had been forced to have the pregnancy, I would quite possibly not have been able to leave the house. I wouldn’t have gone to work. I could not have coped with the emotional trauma that it would have brought me. It might even have made me suicidal.

“And nobody else has any right to tell me what I should do. Without having been in that situation, they have no right to tell me what to do.

“I have spoken to my TD about includ ing legislation for pregnancies with foetal abnormalities. He said he was afraid it would ‘open the floodgates’ to ‘abortion on demand’. T here are not many TDs who are standing out even in support of people in my situation.

“I grew up in a country where choice is the norm. In this country the G overnment has done the very minimum required by the European Court of Human Rights.

" It amazes me how opinionated people are . How can people say these things when they don't know what it's like to be in that situation? It makes me so angry."
Fiona Walsh , in conversation with Rosita Boland