To understand abortion travel, you have to be there
The ‘Not At Home’ exhibition is an attempt to recreate the experience of the 170,000 Irish women who have travelled abroad for abortions
Waiting room at a British pregnancy advisory service clinic in Liverpool, where some Irish women travel to access abortion. Photograph: Cliona Ni Laoi
Last year theatre makers Grace Dyas and Emma Fraser came to me with a big idea. They had plans to recreate the experience of the just over 170,000 Irish women who over the past few decades have had to travel out of Ireland for safe abortion services. It would be a “durational art installation” open to the public. It would feature video and live performances. There was talk of “soundscapes”. I did not immediately fall in love with the big idea.
My abortion, which I had in the 1990s in London, was not art, durational or otherwise. So at first I did not understand why these two women wanted to go all Tracey Emin on a life experience which while very common is private and – especially when it’s illegal in your country - often difficult to speak about. How could they authentically "recreate" this experience? When it came to the ordeal of travelling for a termination, you really had to be there.
Perhaps I should have been more open to the idea. In September 2015, I went public in this newspaper with my own, very ordinary, abortion story. I did so because I hoped speaking out might contribute to a change in the national conversation.
I was fed up with the fact that as a country we were intermittently convulsed by the abortion “debate” but only at certain designated moments: when a raped teenager was being dragged through the courts – “yes, okay, then, let’s talk about her, if we really must”. Or when talk turned to the tragedy of fatal foetal abnormalities – “hmmmm, maybe we better talk about the cruel way we treat those women”. Or when a woman died. Her name was Savita. We had to talk about it then. And afterwards some of us found we could not shut up. Sorry. (I’m not really sorry.)
Us everyday abortion exports/experts didn’t feature much in the national conversation, which is why I and many others have told our stories. And yet even though I had gone public, I wasn’t immediately sure why Dyas and Fraser wanted to make an exhibition out of us abortion travellers.
As anyone who has seen their work to date will know, these are two clever, creative and compassionate young women. Eventually I got the message: Dyas and Fraser believe that even though in recent years more women have spoken about their experiences of travelling for abortions, for many those experiences remain abstract and unseen. So they’ve been collecting our testimonies and travelled to a British Pregnancy Advisory Service Clinic in Liverpool to gather material for the installation: Not At Home is an attempt to draw back the twitching curtain on the experience of women who had to travel for abortions. It’s a space “for her to speak”. A space “for us to listen”.
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Here’s what I’ve come to love about what they are doing: “We don’t want to preach to the converted,” they told me. “We don’t want to shame people into taking a liberal position. We acknowledge that the issue is complicated and complex. We hope the piece will allow people to witness the reality of the consequences of our abortion laws.”
You had to be there, you see. And now you can. By visiting Not At Home you can travel with us. Sit in the waiting room. Read the magazines. You can hear our voices. Take the taxi. You can listen to the comments of the Liverpudlian cab drivers who, knowing where we were going and knowing we were not at home, acted as surrogate dads to us on the way to the clinic.
At Not At Home you can acknowledge us in all our tiny details. That woman who had a cup of tea in an airport in Leeds which meant she couldn’t get an anaesthetic and would have to be fully conscious for the procedure. The woman who bled on a bathmat in a B&B in Manchester and spent hours trying to clean the stain because she was embarrassed. By visiting Not At Home you can walk in our shoes. See where we bled in tube carriages and on airport seats.
You can look. Or you can look away. It’s your choice. Aren’t you lucky to have one?
Private viewing of ‘Not At Home’
Are you someone who had to leave Ireland for an abortion? Are you one of that vast tribe of Irish women who made a healthcare decision, one that is outlawed in our country by the Eighth Amendment to the constitution?
I want to invite you into The Recovery Room with me for one night only on September 13th, for a private viewing of the Not At Home exhibition before it opens. We will talk. We might hug. We will definitely eat Custard Creams.
Above all else I hope we’ll feel solidarity with one another. We, the women Ireland cannot look in the eye, will stand together and reflect on that lonely, vulnerable time when we were Not At Home.
Not At Home by THEATREclub takes place at NCAD Gallery, Dublin, as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival on Thursday 14th & Friday 15th September, 5pm – 9pm and Saturday 16th & Sunday 17th at 12pm-6pm. It is not ticketed.
Recovery Room, a solidarity evening for women who have travelled for abortion services, takes place in the gallery on September 13th. For tickets visit https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/recovery-room-with-roisin-ingle-connect-and-share-for-one-night-only-tickets-36187116640
For more visit notathomeireland.com