Graham and Helen Linehan: ‘It’s a story we shouldn’t have to tell’

Helen Linehan had an abortion because of a fatal foetal abnormality. Now she and her husband, the ‘Father Ted’ creator Graham Linehan, have made their experience public as part of a campaign to decriminalise abortion in Ireland

Graham Linehan and his wife Helen talk about the abortion she had in 2004 following a scan that showed the foetus had a condition known as acrania. If taken to full term, they were told, the baby would probably survive an hour or two. Video: AMNESTY

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This week Amnesty International released Chains, a short campaign film voiced by Liam Neeson and produced by the television writer and director Graham Linehan. It’s part of Amnesty’s campaign to decriminalise abortion in Ireland.

As the camera lingers on gloomy churches so old that nature has started to engulf them, it’s hard not to think of Linehan’s other association with the Catholic Church, the sitcom Father Ted, which he and Arthur Matthews created.

Linehan is using his platform as a writer for television, as well as someone with a Twitter following of over over half a million people, to speak out against Ireland’s abortion laws.

The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment– the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland – has gathered momentum recently. There have been street protests and political petitions, and a number of women have broken the silence that usually surrounds abortion. Linehan and his wife Helen are adding their very personal story too.

In 2004, Helen Linehan was pregnant. She and Graham set about excitedly telling their friends and family. But at 11 weeks, a scan showed the foetus had a condition known as acrania, a fatal abnormality meaning its skull did not fully encase its brain. If taken to full term, they were told, the baby would probably survive for no more than an hour or two outside the womb.

They were living in London at the time and had an abortion. The couple went on to have a daughter in the UK, and then moved to Ireland and had a son. At a playgroup, Helen got into conversation with another mother, whose friend had a similar experience to Helen’s first pregnancy. But there was one significant difference: the other woman was in Ireland when it happened, meaning accessing the healthcare Helen had was illegal. Helen was unaware of such a reality and the situation struck her as outrageous.

“Our story sounds great compared to the stories I’ve heard over these past couple of days,” Helen says, alluding to Irish women who have told her their stories of having to travel for terminations. “We really are just so lucky. We feel incredibly lucky to have the support and the care that we did in England.”

A second video from Amnesty, featuring Helen and Graham telling their story, brings home how their personal experience could have been so much worse had they had to go through it in Graham’s home country.

“If I had been here I would have been legally bound to have gone full term in a pregnancy knowing that it wasn’t going to survive,” Helen says. “These women who are having experiences similar to ours are just being turned away, and Ireland is turning its back on them and letting them deal with their situation themselves.

“They have to get on the phone, and Google clinics, and phone around. It’s barbaric, it’s sickening. In a time of need, the neediest time of your life . . . the prolonging of that, of carrying that baby, having to book into all these places, having to fly to them, it’s just ridiculous.”

Graham Linehan is in an interesting position to talk about this issue as an emigrant. This gives him perspective on the situation. Frequently, Irish solutions to Irish problems confound outsiders, yet seem ordinary to those at home.

“It feels like there’s a kind of mist that everybody’s living in that’s affecting our view of what normal is.

“You know, the way abortion is framed usually, it’s seen as almost a recreational endeavour,” Graham says. “We just thought that our story highlighted the fact that it is an important medical procedure and the absence of it in Ireland is dangerous, in all sorts of ways.

“Medically [the absence of abortion is] dangerous to Helen’s body, but also to her mind. [There are] psychological effects of carrying a baby you know is going to die a few hours after it is born.”

Helen continues, “If I had gone through that, imagine how people would have behaved in my company? My parents, friends.” Graham finishes her sentence, “People congratulating you.”

Helen continues, “‘So, when’s it due? What are you having?’ ‘I’m having a baby that’s going to die.’ It’s a story we shouldn’t have to tell. It’s a sad little part of our marriage. We dealt with it. We were able to work through it and move on. We’ve got two kids now. I feel that there’s a need for people to speak out.”

When Helen was pregnant and living in Ireland, Graham says his relationship with his country changed. “I’m very proud to be Irish, but that moment was a bit of a car crash for me in terms of my relationship with Ireland, because we were living in Ireland when we found this out. Helen was pregnant and I realised she wasn’t safe,” Graham pauses, his voice shaking. “She wasn’t safe in Ireland.”

The couple had been speaking the previous day in Belfast, where abortion is legal only when there is a threat to the life of a woman, or a risk of a permanent or long-term adverse effect on her physical or mental wellbeing.

“I was thinking about all the women who may be pregnant at the moment and will hear some of the stuff we’re talking about and be terrified, and I hate to add to that, but forewarned is forearmed. It’s very important that they know in advance, that – Jesus Christ – if anything happens, they’ve got to be prepared. They’ve got to have a plan. They’ve got to have an escape plan. It was humiliating to have to acknowledge that to my British wife about Ireland.”

Later in the morning, Graham and Helen Linehan spoke to an assembled crowd in the theatre’s bar area, alongside Irish Times journalist Róisín Ingle, and Amnesty Ireland’s executive director Colm O’Gorman.

The Linehans make for unlikely campaigners, but it’s the normality of their story contrasting with extraordinary laws that has made an impact.

Elsewhere, other artists are joining the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment featuring the likes of Sebastian Barry, John Banville, Gabriel Byrne, Jennifer Johnston, Marian Keyes, Pauline McLynn, and hundreds of other Irish people across film, television, literature, theatre, visual arts and music.

“The thing is, abortion will always be needed. It will always be something that is needed. Ireland is just turning a blind eye to it,” Helen says.

Her husband says that, while he celebrated the recent marriage-equality referendum, he thought the feelings that came with it of Ireland being a modern country aren’t true, until laws surrounding women’s reproductive rights are addressed.

“This is the last link in that chain that leads back to Savita [Halappanavar], and the symphysiotomies, the Magdalene Laundries, the X Case, all these things. We won’t be free of it.

“There’s going to be another one. Another thing will happen. And people say ‘oh it’ll take three years at least to change’. Well, in three years, there will be another Savita. And the politicians who are refusing to engage with this issue now will have caused that. It will be their fault.”

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