Fintan O'Toole: How I discovered what I felt about abortion

I was 18 when asked to help a girl get an abortion. I knew it was not about me, it was about her

“She wasn’t weeping or pleading. She was calm, controlled, determined. She had a mind and she had made it up.” File photograph: iStockPhoto

“She wasn’t weeping or pleading. She was calm, controlled, determined. She had a mind and she had made it up.” File photograph: iStockPhoto

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When I was 18, I knew nothing about anything and even less about abortion. I had never really thought about it. I suppose I had a vague feeling that it was a bad thing, to be contemplated only in extreme circumstances. And then in summer 1976 I had to discover what I felt about abortion. It took me all of 30 seconds.

Very few people in my part of the world went to university. I was a student in UCD. This lent me an aura of sophistication and knowingness that was laughably distant from the truth. But because of it, a male friend my own age called in and asked me to go with him to his house. His mother and father were in the sitting room with his sister who was, I think, 16. She was pregnant and she had made up her mind that she did not want to have the baby. Did I know how to go about arranging to have an abortion in England?

I’d be a pompous little prig if I walked out. And I just knew that I’d be a miserable little coward if I hid behind my ignorance

What was I supposed to do? Get up and storm out in a show of moral outrage? Or sit there and squirm and stammer out the quite truthful answer that I knew sweet damn all about any of this stuff? Or try somehow to be of use, to help the girl get this thing done so that after the school holidays, she could just turn up in class like everyone else, study for her Leaving Cert and get on with her life?

Listen to Fintan O'Toole's story (From 38.20)

Hidden instincts

It’s at moments like this, when you find yourself under pressure to make a choice you are not prepared for, that your hidden instincts reveal themselves. Sitting on the couch looking at that girl, two things were immediately obvious. One was that this was not about me or my feelings at all – it was about her. And the other was that the part of her that was most important here was not really her body. It was her mind, her free will, her right to make the decision she had come to. I just knew that I’d be a pompous little prig if I walked out. And I just knew that I’d be a miserable little coward if I hid behind my ignorance.

I didn’t have the information she wanted but I was in a position to get it, to find people who could talk to her and help her get to a clinic in England. I knew absolutely that if I did this, it would make me morally complicit in the arrangement of an abortion. A small part in the facilitation of a murder makes you a murderer. If this was a baby killing and if I helped even a little bit, I would be, then and now and forever, a baby killer.

It actually did not occur to me for one instant that it was my business to do anything except try to make a difficult situation for her a little easier if I could

This was not, moreover, what anti-abortion people like to call a hard case. There was no suggestion that the girl had been raped. She was in the bloom of youthful good health and there was no reason to think that she could not have a glowing pregnancy and a happy delivery. There was not even a melodramatic scenario where shamed and scandalised parents were about to fling her out on the road and warn her never to darken their doorsteps again. Her parents were good people – they loved her and respected her and would have supported her in any decision she made. If she had wanted to have a baby and keep it, I had no doubt they would help her and welcomed her child.

But she didn’t. This was the simple, salient fact in that sittingroom at that moment. She wasn’t weeping or pleading. She was calm, controlled, determined. She had a mind and she had made it up. She needed help, not to make her decision, but to carry it through. And it actually did not occur to me for one instant that it was my business to do anything except try to make a difficult situation for her a little easier if I could. Why? Because the alternative was unthinkable: that this girl be forced against her will to go through a pregnancy she did not want.

Good life

I told the family I would be back the next day with the phone numbers they needed. I went in to UCD next morning and got the numbers and went back to the house. Her father answered the door and I gave him a piece of paper with the information on it. I never talked to the family again about what happened. I just know that the girl was not pregnant that summer, that she was back in school in the autumn, that she got her Leaving Cert and went on to have a good life.

Actually that’s not quite true. I do know something else: that girl is not a murderer. She is not a baby-killer and neither am I. I don’t wake up in the dark hours haunted by the ghost of a child killed by a hitman whose phone number I delivered. I just feel glad that, naive as I was then, I knew enough not to be sanctimonious about choices I would never myself have to make. 

Abortion: The Facts

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