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Tuesday 18 June 2019

A letter to the first woman to have a legal abortion in Ireland

By Mary O'Donnell

'As spring begins to glide over our beautiful, about-to-brim-with-greenness island, I'd like to think of you feeling emotionally strong enough to enjoy the year...'
'As spring begins to glide over our beautiful, about-to-brim-with-greenness island, I'd like to think of you feeling emotionally strong enough to enjoy the year...'

Dear Sister, I could also name you 'woman', but that sounds a bit vehement. Or 'little sister', 'teenage girl', 'sex worker', or 'professional female'. The range of designations and soubriquets is flexible, but for me and others, your age and job category are completely immaterial. Nor is your nationality relevant, your skin colour, or sexual orientation. You are now a historic figure - that is, a woman who has entered silently into the chronicle of our nation's social and health history.

By now, it's behind you, and I hope you have recovered, that the heavy feeling of early pregnancy has fallen away, and the even heavier feeling of decision-making. It's said that many women feel nothing but relief after their abortion. They are restored to their bodies, can resume plans and hopes for the coming year - career plans, family plans, holiday plans. They can travel to India to dance on the beach at Goa, they can sally forth and drink 10 shots in some bar, or they can do the opposite, and perhaps go to Lough Derg or climb Croagh Patrick, if so inclined. In theory, they could even choose celibacy for the rest of their lives, and live in a convent as a Discalced Carmelite. Because the privately, legally conducted action you have just undergone is just that: private and legal. Your body is your own, as is your mind, which inhabits that much-contested and discussed territory we call body, and your mind has a right to be as private as you want it to be.

You are now in a position to resume your plans. Plans are what unfold for all kinds of people, secular and religious, usually being interrupted for perfectly 'normal' reasons such as birth; marriage; sickness, physical or mental; and death. Plans form a pattern within our lives, and the threads and knots of unexpected events bring a certain nuance and contour to the whole thing. This enormous interior change has occurred for you because, for your own reasons, you have decided to reverse an unexpected situation, to allow your life to carry on as if the situation had never arisen in the first place.

Are you secular or are you on some level religious, or of a mindfulness disposition? You could be anything. You could be an atheist, enriched with the sense of personal responsibility so typical of Irish atheists. Or perhaps like me, you believe in the life of the soul, and know that the space in which yours resides remains intact, whole, and pure as ever it was. The theology isn't important, so much as the fact that you are now capable of continuing in the way you expected. Paradoxically, you'll have discovered that your decision has rendered it impossible that anything will actually continue as expected. You now have an additional aspect attached to your sense of yourself, something to be guarded and respected, I imagine, because now you are living through the consequences of having a choice. You will, I hope, be kind to yourself about this.

I admire your bravery as much as I feel sad for you having had to take the decision, because no matter how you dress it up, abortion isn't an 'easy' choice. Did you even know you were the very first female to enter that hospital theatre, to lie on the stainless steel but softly mattressed stretcher? I don't suppose the examination lights were on when you entered that room of proper procedure, though you might have spotted the stirrups. Surely the medical equipment will have been concealed from your eyes. It's not for no reason that medicine is performed in a theatre, and this is a three-act drama of before, during, and after, with you as the protagonist.

I hope you didn't realise you were the absolute first. You've had enough weight on your shoulders, enough voices clamouring within your head, enough personal pain (and some concealment) to endure. You'll have fretted, I suspect, about the medical attitude within that hospital. Would you be judged, and if so, in what way? Would the theatre nurses look kindly on you? Or might some swift, sharp, judgmental glance have come your way? Would the doctor performing the abortion have empathy, at least? And the anaesthetist (if you had a full anaesthetic)? Would it be painful? How would it be afterwards? I am sure that in the context of our State's slowly accrued courage, you'll have been treated with respect and kindness.

You do know that, throughout the decades that Irish women have travelled to England, there was no judgment over there on their decision. That country helped us when our own refused to. Over there, the procedure of ending the cellular metabolism of one's own species is regarded as necessary for some women, part of a medical practice neither praised nor condemned. You'll note that I refer to our own species, and my use of words such as 'ending the life of'. My choice is not to obfuscate, and I, too, voted Yes to repeal the punitive and medically unsound Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. I believe that the decision to end the life of our own species is never taken lightly, because it has to be lived with, and you have to bless your own strength of mind, that you were free and able to make this choice. There's a world of difference between the inflammatory language once used by allegedly pro-life groups, and a full and consenting knowledge that, as an adult female, you decided to end the life of that foetus, bundle of blood-cells, the pinprick heartbeat, for your own trustworthy reasons.

As ever, language makes demands on you, and on all of us. As ever in matters to do with female biology, we trust that the correct language is used. Because those who call your action into question will continue to undermine your decision and that of other women, something you are well aware of. Many women who undergo an abortion in Irish hospitals can expect to see objections - indeed, the placard-holders are out in force already - to hear voices, to see silent, accusing groups outside those hospitals and clinics as they leave and attempt to resume their lives. There will doubtless be special exit doors from some institutions in an attempt to avoid the pleading words and visually painful images designed to make them feel uncertain and ashamed. This is very hard. I hope, in your case, that you slipped in, went to theatre, and slipped home again without your peace of mind being further eroded. I hope too, that the person who created and shared this early pregnancy with you, was present, or your mother, or sister, or father. There are wonderful fathers in this world, and clear-headed men who will always defend a rightly considered action, something that is occasionally forgotten in the fever of debate. There is nothing worse than being preyed on by people so committed to their view of life rights that you, as a woman also committed to life rights, feel attacked, eroded, and abused.

As spring begins to glide over our beautiful, about-to-brim-with-greenness island, I'd like to think of you feeling emotionally strong enough to enjoy the year, the first, cold-tolerating snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils, the lengthening, still-chilly days, and putting this experience to rest (it will never disappear) as best you can. If I were your mother - no matter what age you are - I'd want to put my arms around you and soothe away whatever anxieties may linger.

But I can't do that, as I don't know you, and am unlikely to. So just remember this: our country has undergone a slow, gradual, and sometimes cruel education on the question of female health-rights. So many generations of women were dressed up, trussed out, married off, and once married, bred from, as if female bodies were containers, like those traditional Russian dolls, babushkas, and we held doll after doll after doll within us, to be birthed out repeatedly into an uncertain national climate. But you know something? The era of the doll-women is damn well over. Your life has begun as a free woman in a democracy that supports you. Good luck.



Mary O'Donnell is a novelist and poet

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