'I am terrified to share my story. I have typed and deleted it 20 times so far," the anonymous woman wrote. "I am just so scared to share it because the shame eats away at me and has done every day for the last two years."
This story, of an unknown Irish woman in her mid- to late-20s, is contained in In Her Shoes, a new book cataloguing the personal testimony of a small sample of women who were affected by the Eighth Amendment. The book has 32 stories to represent 32 counties. In Her Shoes started as a Facebook page, created and curated by Erin Darcy, before the 2018 referendum that led to the abolition of the constitutional ban on abortion. Hundreds of women sent in their anonymous experiences of pregnancy, abortion and loss. The anonymity was a way to evade the social stigma of abortion while also clearly illustrating the real-world consequences of the Eighth Amendment. By May 2018, the page had a following of 100,000. It had already shared more than 400 stories, and almost 800 more had been submitted.
"Women's stories" almost became a campaign device during that referendum. The complex and varied lives of women were edited out by the media and the campaign until all that was left was a parable about abortion. Both sides of the debate had to find women with sad stories, who had made a choice that was unquestionably the right one for them. The stories had to be simple; there was no room for doubt or regret or uncertainty or guilt - anything that could be seized on by the other side as proof that the woman's choice had been wrong. In other words, there was no room for the very common feelings that accompany every major life choice, including abortion.
In Her Shoes, by contrast, creates a much richer tapestry of the lives of women and does not need to erase the nuance that would be seen as inconvenient or awkward during a campaign debate.
There is the young woman who says she needed and wanted an abortion, but was so scarred by the shame of doing it in secret that she said she questioned if she would ever feel she "deserved" to have a baby. There is the young woman who speaks eloquently about the natural maternal feelings that she had for the embryo growing inside her before she travelled for a termination. There is even the woman who endured social shame of becoming pregnant at the age of 16 in the 1990s, and who concedes that she sometimes imagines a different life where she had been able to have a termination.
"I didn't want an abortion but I didn't want a baby either. I was a baby," she said.
"I will say here for the purposes of this post only: I often wonder how different my life would have been had abortion been more accessible in Ireland."
These are what abortion stories sound like when women don't have to make them "good enough" to trade for rights.
Depending on your experience, there are parts of In Her Shoes that are raw enough to almost be unreadable. The most harrowing stories are, undoubtedly, the tales of pregnancy loss. There is no varnish on these tales, which are worsened by the cruelty of a law that banned terminations for medical reasons.
These were the same kinds of stories that horrified us all in the run-up to the 2018 referendum. The political campaign for repeal was dominated by the mantra of "rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities", a well-meaning but ultimately disturbing narrative where a woman seemed to need to earn an abortion through trauma.
In Her Shoes makes space for stories that are much closer to the vast majority of reasons for abortion in Ireland. For example, the shortest of the 32 stories reads: "I wasn't raped. It just wasn't the right time."
In Her Shoes presents the reality not just of abortion, but of the Eighth Amendment as well. Women talk about looking for female taxi driver firms in foreign cities and rehearsing cover stories before having to go to the hospital after taking illegal abortion pills ordered online. A well-written introduction by Erin Darcy explains how the tentacles of the Eighth Amendment went way beyond an anti-abortion ban and into maternity services: after her own experience of miscarriage, she was lying in hospital thinking of Savita Halappanavar.
In Her Shoes serves one other very important purpose. The Facebook page was the result of a grassroots campaign organised by activists in rural Ireland. Darcy writes how the main pro-choice campaign could often feel "distant and Dublin centric".
Many of the pro-choice campaigners of rural Ireland never had the chance to be written in to the narrative, before they could even be written out of it. In Her Shoes thankfully ensures that some of those women won't remain unheard.