If people say one thing and ask one question about the personal column I’ve been writing in these pages for nearly 15 years it is this: “You are so honest but is there anything you would never write about?”
When they ask me, I tell them the truth. Of course there is. There are Somethings I wouldn’t write about. Plenty of Things. Numerous and various Experiences. But it’s the same one Experience that always comes to my mind when anyone asks that question. And instead of being honest about the Experience, I tell them “I have my secrets” and flash what I hope is an enigmatic smile. In terms of shutting down this particular line of enquiry, I’ve found it works a treat.
Many times over the years I’ve stopped myself writing about this Experience. And every time I’ve asked myself why. Was I ashamed of it? No. Was I embarrassed? Not at all. Did I feel I’d done something wrong? Quite the opposite. What I had done was the right decision for me.
I was stopping myself from writing about the Experience because of what other people might think. Which, when I thought about it, was completely against the spirit of my column.
When I came to write the introduction to my new book of columns, I found myself wanting to write about the thing I’ve never written about. This unwritten Experience. I thought long and hard about it and I felt it was the right thing to do.
My Experience is not something strange or unique or uncommon. It is something many other women in Ireland and around the world can relate to: I had an abortion. I am glad I did.
You might want to ask why I would write about it, why now, and that is a good question for a few reasons. There are people who are violently opposed to this service ever being available to women in Ireland so you don’t have to be a social scientist to know that when I write about my abortion, certain people will post letters and scriptures and pictures to me with the express purpose of hurting me or making me feel ashamed of myself. They will get in touch telling me how I and other women should live our lives and what choices we should make and what we should do with our wombs. So I want to say something to those people, just in case any of them are reading: I have done nothing wrong and you cannot hurt me and you cannot touch me. Ever. Like tens of thousands of women in Ireland and like hundreds of thousands of women around the world I am glad and relieved and not at all ashamed that I once had an abortion.
I had told my pro-choice mother about the abortion years earlier. When I told her that I planned to write about it now, she was very concerned that I would alienate people. She is supportive of me in my writing and in everything I do – I could not have written my column without her blessing over the years – but after she read a first draft of this she said:
“I am worried. I worry that people who like you and like your column won’t like you when you tell them you had an abortion.”
I was upset about this at first. I didn’t like the idea of censoring myself because I would risk losing readers. On the other hand, I could see where she was coming from. And it was something I had to consider.
Wherever you stand on the issue, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that what I did is the right course of action for every woman who finds themselves pregnant and doesn’t want to be. I just passionately believe every woman in Ireland should be free to make that choice.
My abortion is part of my story, part of who I am. But it is just one part of my life: I was divorced. I have two children. I am messy and domestically challenged. I have a tendency to lose things. I like chips. (Probably too much.) I cry easily.
I had an abortion.
* * *
Back to that question. Why write about it now? Well. There are more than 100,000 reasons. Since 1980, more than 150,000 women have left Ireland, mostly for England, to get abortions. I feel a sense of solidarity with these women, a feeling that began building up many years before my own Experience, a feeling that is stronger than ever now. I think it's wrong that these women were not able to access abortion in their own country. It is estimated that 12 women leave Ireland every day to get terminations in other countries. I want to stand up in solidarity with them and be counted.
I was a very late developer when it came to solidarity with women who had abortions. It took me a good while to catch on. In my defence I was only 12 when the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was introduced in 1983.
Abortion was already illegal, and had been since 1861, but this change meant that “the right to life of the unborn would be equal” to a mother’s right to life. I look back now to try and figure out what I was at when I was 12. I see that Red, Red, Wine by UB40 was number one when the referendum was passed. I remember every word of that song. But I don’t remember anything about the referendum.
By the age of 20, I was living in a squat in Birmingham, England and not at all engaged with the X Case, where a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and was suicidal was dragged through the courts to get access to an abortion. They eventually ruled that she could have one as her life was threatened. The girl went on to have a miscarriage.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s and married and back in Ireland that I started to understand and form a definite view on abortion: I was pro-choice. At that point, I didn’t know what it would feel like to be pregnant when you didn’t want to be. I just knew I could never judge another woman for her choice.
Around 15 years ago, when I was in my late 20s, I became one of those women when I got pregnant and didn’t want to be.
It happened before I started writing my column. It happened before I met the man who would become the father of my children. It happened after my previous relationship, a five-year marriage, had broken up.
I was flailing around in self-loathing mode. Going out too much. Drinking too much. It happened one night. I should have been more careful. He should have been more careful. I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. And then it did.
I took a pregnancy test. It gave me the wrong answer. The one I didn’t want to see. I was not in a relationship. I did not want a baby but I did know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew my own mind. I knew what was good for me. Even if my country doesn’t think women know their own minds or think we know what is best for ourselves. We trust ourselves even if that trust is not reciprocated by the laws of the land.
I rang my friend, an older woman, someone I knew I could count on for support. I went to a counselling meeting where I pretended to weigh up all my options when of course there was only one option. For me. There was only one option. Not for you. Or for anybody else because I can’t speak for anyone else. But for me. This was the right thing to do.
I knew what had to happen next. Meeting the man in a cafe to explain how much going to England would cost, including the flights and a night in a hotel. We divvied up the damage between us. This is not a sad story. I was lucky. Think of the women scrabbling the money together on their own. Taking loans out. Afraid to tell the person who was 50 per cent responsible. Or when they do tell them, being told to sort it out themselves. Borrowing money, pretending it’s for something else.
In my case he was a civilised, respectable, accountable person. He didn't want a baby either. He wasn't ready emotionally or psychologically or financially for a baby either. We agreed on that. He gave me the cash, all those notes, and I took the thick wad over the table in Bewley's in Westmoreland Street as though it were an illegal transaction. And in a way it was. The Eighth Amendment makes "criminals" of women in Ireland and packs us off to commit our "crimes" in other countries.
I didn’t want to go on my own and my friend said she would come with me. I booked the clinic. There was no faltering. No indecision. I went to sleep that night relieved and unburdened. It was over. My life could carry on the way it was before. I was going to try to be more careful in future.
When I did get pregnant years later I knew I was ready. I knew what was right for me at that time was to carry on with the pregnancy to a hopefully happy conclusion. But having a baby that first time would not have been best for me. I have not had one scrap of regret or shame about what I did.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, wakes up one day and thinks: “Great, I can’t wait. This is the day I have an abortion!” But it is a choice many of us make, and it’s the right choice for many of us. People take the pill and the morning-after pill and they use condoms in order to exercise their reproductive rights, in order to control whether or not they get pregnant or make a woman pregnant.
When I became pregnant I had to make a decision about having a child or not having a child at that time. Individuals and couples make these decisions every day. It is our right as human beings in the world.
Why am I writing this? Because I want to be a part, however small, of the campaign to change abortion legislation in this country. Because if my daughters ever come to me and say they are pregnant when they don't want to be, I don't want them to have to get a boat or a train or a plane. I want to mind them at home where I can put my arms around them and give them a hot water bottle. I want to support and love and care for them every step of the way. I want to respect their choice. I want them to have a choice. Because most countries in Europe give women that choice. Just not the one in which I live.
I know there are some women who regret their decisions to have abortions and I understand that must be a terrible pain to carry in their lives. But I also know it has been the right choice for thousands upon thousands of women in Ireland who I hope will not be silenced any longer. Who will, when the time comes, say “me too” even though that’s one of the most difficult “me toos” an Irishwoman can utter. Who, as the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment gathers pace, will tell their families and close friends about how their terminations were a relief and how they would do it again given the same circumstances.
They can do so anonymously as women have been doing on shareyourabortionstory.tumblr.com. To read these stories is to see that the women who have abortions are every kind of Irishwoman.
Everywoman. The employed and the unemployed. Women who have children and women who don’t. Teachers and doctors. TDs and factory workers. Teenagers and thirty-somethings. Writers and TV presenters. Students and immigrants. Authors and barristers. They are our mothers and sisters. Our daughters and wives. They are not criminals. We are not criminals.
I know not everyone who reads this will agree. I also know my mother is right when she says I might lose or alienate readers now that I have “come out” about my abortion. But sometimes in life you have to step up. In my life this is one of those times.