Why Marian Keyes is writing about abortion in her new novel

The pro-choice author’s latest novel shines a harsh light on ‘fear and silence’ in Ireland

Marian Keyes at the World Congress on Women’s Mental Health on Wednesday: “When the procedure is done, the woman is rarely given opportunities to process what she’s undergone. To avoid the judgment of her tribe, it’s safer for her to stay silent.”

Marian Keyes at the World Congress on Women’s Mental Health on Wednesday: “When the procedure is done, the woman is rarely given opportunities to process what she’s undergone. To avoid the judgment of her tribe, it’s safer for her to stay silent.”

 

“On International Women’s Day, I would like women to have the same rights that they have in every other developed democracy,” best-selling author Marian Keyes has told The Irish Times.

After speaking to delegates at the World Congress on Women’s Mental Health in Ballsbridge, Dublin, Keyes said that Irish women need “autonomy over their own bodies and the opportunity to make choices over their own body”.

“Services need to be introduced in this country” to enable them to do that, she said.

Keyes’s new novel, Calling the Breaks, which will be published in September, is about a 44-year-old woman, Amy, who has three daughters. There are several storylines, Keyes told the conference. One of them focuses on Amy’s 17-year-old daughter, who is pregnant and doesn’t want to continue with the pregnancy. She asks her mother for her help.

Keyes previously wrote about abortion in her novel Angels. As she wrote Calling the Breaks, she said that, once again, she “was conscious of all the obstacles in place when a woman in Ireland has a crisis pregnancy”.

Toxic shame

“Unlike other countries, the woman can’t go to her GP or an expert in reproductive health. Instead, she has herself to search for the information online and usually in secret. This unavailability and secrecy makes the process one of fear and toxic shame,” Keyes told the congress.

“If a woman manages to get abortifacient pills without them being impounded by customs, she’s faced with the frightening task of carrying out a medical procedure without any help from an expert.”

“Because using abortifacients carries a criminal conviction,” Keyes said, “with a 14-year jail sentence, if something goes wrong and the woman needs to go to hospital, she’s obliged to lie about what is happening to her, thus blocking her from receiving the most appropriate medical care. All of which is terrifying.

“If the pills are impounded. The woman must leave Ireland and go to a neighbouring state. And this exacerbates, even further, the sense of committing an aberrant act. All of which, naturally, has a profoundly negative effect on the mental health of the women.”

Keyes continued: “When the procedure is done, the woman is rarely given opportunities to process what she’s undergone, by talking to colleagues, friends, families and neighbours. To avoid the judgment of her tribe, it’s safer for her to stay silent.

“ All that fear, silence, secrecy and toxic shame impacts in countless different ways on the mental health of the woman affected.”

Escaping the shame

Before Keyes read from her new novel, she shared a short conversation that her main character has with an English friend.

“A young woman in my care is having an abortion,” I say. “It’s the right thing for her. Are you pro-choice?”

He seems startled. “Of course.”

“You Brits,” I say. “You’re so lucky to be free of all that guilt and shame. But living in Ireland, it’s impossible to escape the shame, it hangs in the air.”

“You can’t really blame the air for shame,” he says. “The shame is generated by Irish law. Fourteen years in prison, for taking a pill? That’s quite a judgement”.

Keyes had a final word for Ireland: “We need to stop exporting our shame.”

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