Sean Moncrieff: ‘My girlfriend listed all the reasons to have an abortion’
Sometimes the best we can do is to be kind, if anything that’s what being human means
“I picked her a flower. She held it like it was a precious thing, and only then did tears wriggle down her face.”
Back in the early 1980s, access to contraception involved visiting a GP, whose job it was to adjudicate if you wanted them for bone fide family planning reasons; whatever they were. But not any GP: people quickly learned that some would be sympathetic, and some would run you out the door.
Then there would be a prescription and a visit to a pharmacy. But not any pharmacy; such was Ireland’s horror at the thought of sex, of talking about it, that many refused to co-operate. There were entire counties free from the diabolic poison of synthetic oestrogen or latex.
But there were other ways to access contraception, at least in Dublin. There were clinics. Whether they were quietly flouting the law or had found some dodge around it I don’t know, but I ended up at one with my then girlfriend.
We sat in reception and sniggered ourselves into incoherence. When the time came I couldn’t get the word condoms out; the woman behind the counter had to say it for me, though not unkindly. She’d probably encountered this kind of reaction before. We too were products of that Ireland, where sex was viewed as an illicit activity. We were just out of college. We were little more than kids.
And then, some time later, she was pregnant.
I don’t remember a lot of the details, though I still have a vivid sense of how Ireland suddenly changed from bright to Soviet grey – a place where we were trapped and bewildered. My girlfriend, asphyxiating with fear, immediately listed all the reasons to have an abortion. We couldn’t look after a baby. We had no jobs, or money. Her parents would disown her. They lived – proudly – in one of the contraception-free counties. I knew she was right. I know that more now than I did then.
But abortion: I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t thought about it before. It seemed to make sense that life would begin at conception, but balanced against this was her overwhelming terror, my terror: a future life already starting to crush us.
So I went to the library. I read old copies of Time and Newsweek. Roe vs Wade. One line stays with me. Abortion. It’s an ugly word.
I found philosophy books. Sorites paradox. The Christian church and philosophers like Aquinas could never agree on when the foetus became fully human. Ensoulment, it was called. Forty days. Eighty days. It varied between women and men.
No one could properly define being human or when that started. I found, instead, an insoluble question, like defining eternity or identifying consciousness. You have to guess. You have to take the least worst option.
We took the boat and arrived at a discreet suburban clinic in London. I was made wait outside while she was interviewed, then told to come back in a few hours. I booked us into a hostel.
Afterwards, she didn’t say much. We passed bars we might otherwise have found inviting, but we didn’t go in. We walked through a park, and I picked her a flower. She held it like it was a precious thing, and only then did tears wriggle down her face.
Normally, I would have hugged her, try to make the crying stop. Fix it, as men always try to do. But somehow we both knew that this was necessary, that this was healthy; part of the process.
We returned to Dublin the next morning. We’d been gone just three days, yet we both felt much older. There were no regrets, but a new sense that our futures would hold other difficult, messy choices. Because life is like that, and the best we can do is to be kind. If anything, that’s what being human means.