Thursday 14 November 2019

Why abortion is still the secret that women won't reveal to their friends

Janet Ni Shuilleabhain pictured 20 years ago and (right) recently
Janet Ni Shuilleabhain pictured 20 years ago and (right) recently
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Every day, 11 women from this country travel to the UK to have an abortion – when are we going to acknowledge their existence?

For more than 20 years, since the X Case judgment, discussion of abortion in Ireland has largely been confined to those very limited cases where pregnancy poses a threat to a woman's life.

It is a measure of just how perverse the debate in Ireland is that legalising abortion, only in instances that would save a woman's life, proved a matter of controversy for two decades.

Instead of debating whether or not women have a moral right to reproductive freedom, we have been debating whether or not women have a right to not be killed by the foetus they are carrying.

Now that the State has belatedly acknowledged, with the enactment of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, that the life of a woman takes precedence over the life of a foetus, it is time the debate moved on.

For too long, and probably as a result of the difficulty in passing even an extremely restrictive abortion law, the abortion debate has been framed by the 'hard cases' – women whose pregnancies pose a risk to their lives, women who fall pregnant as a result of rape and women carrying foetuses with fatal foetal abnormalities.

Patently, women in these appalling situations should have access to abortion in this country, but the exclusive focus on these tragic cases belies the reality that they comprise a tiny minority of those who ultimately opt to travel for a termination.

Consequently, the debate is entirely devoted to the types of women we deem "worthy" of having an abortion. The notion of abortion as a right that should be available to every woman is never even entertained. The result is pernicious: the perpetuation of stigma and shame, directed at women who believe that reproduction should be a personal choice and not a state mandate, which has excised the voices of tens of thousands of women from the debate. Women have been silenced, their voices replaced by clerics, politicians, lawyers and medical experts who talk about the issue using abstractions – instead of giving first-hand accounts of what it feels like to have a crisis pregnancy in a country where you have only two options: continue with it or leave the jurisdiction.

The panic, the fear, the anxiety, the difficulty in raising money, not knowing who to confide in, lying about your reasons for travelling, the relief when it is all over – those experiences are all shrouded in secrecy.

Even on those rare occasions when women attempt to remove this muzzle, their voices are sometimes still not heard.

Recently, Janet Ni Shulleabhain used her week curating the @Ireland Twitter account to discuss her abortion, which she had as a teenager because she didn't feel ready to become a parent.

She has, she said, just one regret. That she was forced to travel for a termination. She has never regretted ending her pregnancy. Her courageous decision was covered by the international press, like the BBC and Al Jazeera, but other than one interview on Newstalk, didn't result in any national coverage.

"Invisible people have invisible rights," she said, commenting on the media silence afterwards.

These women's voices are not just absent from the public sphere. Increasingly, they are also absent from the private sphere.

The 2010 Irish Contraception and Crisis Pregnancy Study found that, while abortion rates generally have decreased, 21pc of crisis pregnancies – defined as being unplanned and representing a personal trauma for the woman or couple involved – end in abortion. Despite the large numbers of women opting to have an abortion, the report noted that there was "an increasing trend in the proportion of women not disclosing that they have had an abortion to friends and family".

The study found that 41pc of women did not reveal their abortion to friends, up from 8pc in 2003, and 54pc did not tell their parents, up from 44pc in 2003.

It also revealed that 29pc of women who travel for terminations do not tell their partners, up from 28pc in 2003. You may think that you don't know any women who have had an abortion but you probably do. They have just been too frightened, ashamed, embarrassed or fearful to tell you.

Contrary to anti-choice rhetoric, it is not abortion that hurts women. It is the denial of women's agency, the loss of their bodily autonomy and the dearth of control over their own reproductive choices that really hurts women, particularly those without the means to travel and who are prisoners on this island.

Women's bodies are the battleground in this fight, so it is time that women's voices were heard and the conspiracy of silence, which has stymied debate, was finally shattered.

Irish Independent

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