News Analysis

Saturday 30 August 2014

John Masterson: It is time to give 150,000 faceless women a voice

A grown-up debate on abortion that includes women who have had one is overdue

Published 06/01/2013 | 05:00

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Think of Croke Park filled twice. Both All-Irelands. According to the 2011 census, the population of Galway including suburbs and environs is 76,778. Double it. And since half of those living in Galway are men you need to double it again. The number of Irish women who have had abortions in Britain since 1980 is about four times the number of women of all ages living in the greater Galway area today.

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In 1993 I was editor of an RTE current affairs series called Tuesday File. My brief included commissioning a small number of programmes from independent producers and we advertised for proposals. One I chose was submitted by a talented team, Fintan Connolly and Hilary Dully. They proposed to interview three woman who had been to London for abortions and who agreed to discuss their experiences.

After four years as executive producer of Today Tonight (the Prime Time of its day) I was well familiar with editorial procedures when dealing with sensitive topics. Having run the proposal up the relevant flagpoles, I was given the go-ahead to commission the programme. It was called 50,000 Secret Journeys.

The programme-makers did a first-class job. The programme was viewed at various stages and, the final version having been cleared, it was scheduled and advertised for transmission on March 29, 1994, at 9.30pm. At a very late stage it was pulled, for reasons I did not accept.

I felt I had let the young filmmakers down. I resigned my position. The programme, with one very minor cut, was transmitted on October 27 in a much later time slot and followed by a studio discussion chaired by Marian Finucane. This could easily have been done on March 29 had anyone so wished. The programme could be transmitted today. It could merely be renamed 150,000 Secret Journeys.

According to the UK Department of Health statistics on the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) website, at least 150,000 Irish women had abortions in the UK between January 1980 and December 2011. Because some Irish women will give an English address it is likely that these figures are an underestimate. In any case, it is a very large number of women and excludes those who go to the Netherlands.

The biggest group were in their 20s, but there were several hundred under 16, and a few thousand over 40. The figure is gradually declining, for whatever reason, perhaps increased use of the morning-after pill. It has fallen from 6,522 in 2000 to 4,149 in 2011, with a consistent decrease each year.

In 1994, following my resignation, I was made producer of the Late Late Show. Cynics will note that

my career did not suffer. One programme where I had a very hands-on approach was about the controversies surrounding the Catholic Church. Little did we know at the time! There was one key decision that I had to fight hard for. It was that everyone in the audience must be a committed Catholic, genuinely concerned about the future of their church.

I still think that decision was central to the impact of the programme because there were no laissez-faire Catholics, none who just did baptisms and weddings, and none slinging mud and whinging about why they left. The debate mattered to these people.

It brings to mind a programme I would like to see now. It is fanciful and will never get out of the starting blocks. I would like to see a grown-up Late Late discussion on abortion where all of the members of the audience had first-hand knowledge to draw on.

This would be a discussion that was not set up for the typical row. There would be none of the usual suspects debating with their forensic skills. They would be Irish women from all walks of life.

There would be wives, mothers, grandmothers, teachers, doctors, shop assistants, journalists, farmers, civil servants, whatever. They would only have in common that they had once been pregnant and, for their own reasons, decided that their best option was to travel to England and have an abortion.

Being Irish most of these women will only have told a few trusted friends. They will have got on with living normal lives, indistinguishable from other Irish women. Given the huge numbers, most of us know, at first or second hand, such women, even though we may not know of this episode in their lives.

The 2011 census showed 87,770 divorcees and 116,000 separated people, men and women. We all know people in those categories. It gives a guideline as to the number of people we are likely to know, or know of, who have had abortions.

I am sick and tired of hearing 'balanced' debates on the topic of abortion where these 150,000 women are not represented.

Sunday Independent

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