'FF TD told us he arranged an abortion for his niece, but he was against abortion'
Face the 50: The X-ile Project's online gallery of women who shared experiences of abortion has grown to 50 photos
The X-ile project: These photographs are of women who, while living in Ireland, have all had an abortion.
On December 10th, 2015, 11 portraits of women were posted online to a new website. Nothing unusual or remarkable about that entirely routine event. Countless new websites appear every day around the world. But this one went on to be reported by news organisations in the US, Australia, Britain, Poland, Italy, India, Belgium, Germany and France. It was picked up by outlets as diverse as The New York Times, Buzzfeed, The Guardian, The Pool, Mashable, Le Figaro and The Telegraph.
These photographs were of women who, while living in Ireland, had all shared the same experience; of having had an abortion. The gallery of their portraits was the first to go online in the X-ile Project. There were more than 10,000 hits in the first few hours when it went online originally. On May 12th, the photographs of 17 new participants in the project will be added to the ever-growing gallery, bringing the number to 50.
Breaking the stigma
“It was my idea initially,” explains Julie Morrissy, who co-founded the project with three friends. “I had been living in Canada for some years, and had just moved back from Canada. I was so disheartened and frustrated. What I found so overwhelming when I came back from Canada was the stigma around abortion. I was trying to think of a way it could be broken.”
Once Morrissy had come up with the idea of portraits, they set up social media accounts and invited people to contact them. She is not certain of the exact age range of the people they have photographed to date, but knows that it extends from women in their 20s to those in their late 50s.
There is a team of volunteer photographers all over the country, all of them women. Participants usually choose where they want to be photographed, and if they don’t have a preference, the portraits are taken in public places.
As abortion remains such a divisive subject in Ireland, I ask Morrissy about the nature of the negative feedback the project has received. “It’s very surprising, but we haven’t had any negative reaction to date,” she says cautiously. “To be honest, we were very surprised.”
The four co-founders all work on the project in a volunteer capacity, and while they have thought about touring an exhibition of the photographs, the costs are too expensive. “We still see the project as a work-in-progress. We would certainly be open to the idea of an exhibition.”
They never set out on the project with a target in mind of how many women they wanted to photograph. “We all want to keep going with it for as long as we need to,” Morrissy says. “There is still a lot of stigma around abortion in Ireland and I think the women in the gallery are helping to break that. People keep on coming forward, volunteering to be part of the project, and we have no plans at all to finish it.”
Three X-ile participants’ tell their stories:
Fionnula MacLiam is one of the 17 new portraits to be included in the gallery. She had an abortion in the 1970s, when she was a teenager in Dublin. “I was in a steady relationship with my boyfriend, although we had to pretend to be engaged to get condoms through the Family Planning Association,” she says. “Something went wrong, and I missed a period. I was totally disbelieving. I went to get a pregnancy check at the Well Woman Centre. There was no such thing as pregnancy tests in the 1970s.”
MacLiam had been on holiday in Europe, and her boat train journey had brought her back through London. “At a train station in London, I picked up a copy of a book called Alternative London, and that had all the information in it about where to go for an abortion.”
She didn’t tell anyone except her boyfriend, not even her close girlfriends. “I was the only person in my group of friends who was sexually active. Abortion wasn’t talked about at the time, even with close female friends. I think my parents would have been shocked if I told them. I didn’t feel the need to let anyone else in. I’ve always been pragmatic.”
Although she was a student, her boyfriend was working, as he had got a job straight from school. “He paid, and he came with me too. I told my parents I was going to stay with a friend somewhere else in Ireland for a couple of days, which wouldn’t have been unusual. The only other person I told, apart from my boyfriend, was that friend. I had to tell her, in case anyone in my family rang looking for me – which they did. She said I’d popped out to the shops.”
At the abortion clinic, she was advised to stay overnight, but she didn’t. “I discharged myself immediately against medical advice. They were telling me that there wouldn’t be a doctor on the boat in case I haemorrhaged, but I felt pressure to get back. I was apprehensive, but I felt I had to get back, and not stay away two nights.”
How does MacLiam feel about it now? “It was a minor disruption in my life at the time.” She recalls that, “There were a lot of pro-abortion marches going on at that time. Myself and a couple of girlfriends went on the march, and then went for a drink and got talking to this man. We said we’d been on the march. He told us he had arranged an abortion in England for his niece, but that he was against abortion because he was a Fianna Fáil TD. We were gobsmacked at his hypocrisy.”
Did any of them recognise the man? “I wouldn’t even hardly know my own local TDs. But I do believe he was a TD. Why would anyone make up something like that? And that massive hypocrisy still exists. The Dáil is full of middle-aged men who think alike and have absolutely no idea what is going on in the outside world.
“I decided to be part of this project because I think it really is time for the ordinary women of Ireland to tell their abortion stories to the people who know them. I’m now open about saying I had an abortion because so many women have been through it. The whole sum of all these individual experiences has to add up to something.”
In later years, MacLiam went on a pro-choice march when she was pregnant with her daughter. “There is no way that I thought back in the 1970s when I had my abortion that we would still be marching for our rights in 2017. I’m old enough to be a grandmother now, and I am totally fed up.”
When I call Sara Falkensjo in Sweden to ask when it would suit her to talk on the phone, she is on the point of making a journey. “Call me in 20 minutes when I’ll be on the bus,” she says.
I do. “Are you sure you’re okay having this conversation with me while you’re in a public place?” I ask.
“Abortion is nothing to be ashamed of in Sweden,” she answers laughingly. “It’s important to talk about these things.”
Swedish-born Falkensjo, who is in her early 30s, lived in Ireland five years ago. “I was 27. I was living in Ireland, and me and my boyfriend got pregnant. It wasn’t planned at all. In fact, my doctor had told me that I might need to have hormones to get pregnant. I was kind of worried to tell my boyfriend, because we had never talked about what we would do if it happened, but he agreed with my decision to have an abortion, and was supportive.”
Falkensjo returned to Sweden for the abortion. “I would have done it in Ireland if it was available there, because the flight was very expensive. The procedure itself wasn’t. It’s not expensive in Sweden. My mom came with me, and everyone was really nice. For me, having an abortion maybe wasn’t as scary to someone who was Irish. There was no fear on my part whatsoever. I told my dad too. He was supportive, but he also knew there would be no point in not supporting me!.
“I don’t think people should take the decision lightly to have an abortion, and it’s a decision that affects you a lot, but it’s something that should be available for everyone. The decision was something for me to make, not for society to make. If you don’t feel like you’re suited to be a parent, you should have a choice.”
Falkensjo’s X-ile picture was taken on the steps of Powerscourt Town House. “I think the project is really important, which is why I wanted to be part of it, so that I could contribute. I’m back in Sweden now, but I follow the news about Repeal closely.”
Áine Phillips was 21 and halfway through studying for her degree in Dublin in the 1980s when she became pregnant. “The hardest thing was not telling anyone,” she says. She got information about clinics in England from the Well Woman Clinic. “I had to make a phone call to the clinic from a pay phone on a street.”
Her boyfriend travelled with her. “We took the boat, because we had no money. We hardly had enough money to eat. We bought bread from a supermarket. It was so difficult and complex, but I knew I had to have an abortion. I didn’t tell my family because I was so worried about their reaction.
“Attitudes have changed now, but back then, you were very afraid to say anything in case of destroying your relationship with your family. You were unable to talk to people, and you had to keep it all in. Nobody wants to have an abortion. A woman has one because she needs to, and the only person who can make that decision is the woman.”
Phillips wanted to be part of the X-ile project, because, “A picture tells a thousand words about a real person who has had an abortion, and helps to demystify it. Things are less scary when they are shared. I’m now in my 50s. I have no regrets about my abortion, and I’m not afraid now to talk about it to people.”
Her own photograph was taken in Stephen’s Green. “The photographer asked me to think of the person who I most admire, and I thought of one of my daughters. Then she said for the next photo, think of a person you know who had the most courage, and I thought of my other daughter. Those were the thoughts that went going through my mind when I was being photographed.”
Phillips told her daughters about her abortion when they were adults, and says they both believe in a woman’s “right to choose”.
“I think an expression like ‘abortion on demand’ is upsetting because it’s not very truthful or honest,” she says. “In it, there is an undercurrent of blame against women who have had abortion and we need to take away the blame and the stigma. There is still so much shame attached to abortion in Ireland. I can’t imagine ‘floodgates of women’ wanting abortions. Women will only have one when they need one. I hope the referendum will have happened by this time next year, but meanwhile, the suffering of so many women in Ireland continues because of our law.”
For more see x-ileproject.com