My vote to help the teenagers bleeding in agony, alone
We have a chance now to end the grim experience of back-street abortion and break a shifty political silence
Even as I write, a dozen teenage Irish women have today taken the first of two abortion pills. Soon they will go into labour and miscarriage, cramping and bleeding, in agony, in ignorance, in danger and alone. This is known as back-street abortion and it is sweeping Ireland. When I was a 20-year-old university student in Belfast in 1964, a woman came to my bedsitter, bleeding heavily from what she said was her period.
I put her to bed, lying on a bath towel. By the time I came back with a cup of tea, the towel was soaked with blood. Four towels later, the mattress was soaked and leaking. I suggested we call a doctor or an ambulance.
Her face contorted with fear as she begged me to do no such thing - she had an illegal abortion, her uterus pierced with a knitting needle wielded by the medical student who had impregnated her.
If doctors were involved, she would be reported to the police, convicted and jailed. Abortion was not legalised in the UK until 1967.
I told her that I had to go and buy more towels - being on a student grant I knew that I'd certainly have to buy a new mattress. I went instead to a hospital on the Lisburn Road and asked to speak to a Catholic doctor.
Call that naive and bigoted but I came from a long line of policemen, and my paternal grandfather and great-great grandfathers had been in the RIC, and after partition, in the RUC. My maternal grandmother had been a Shankill Road Protestant, who converted to Catholicism in order to marry Sergeant John Patrick Duffy, and live with him in the Bogside where he ran the Lecky Road Barracks. There was so little crime in the area that Sergeant Duffy and his colleagues raised apple trees and grew vegetables in the allotment garden attached to the barracks.
Sergeant Duffy's peaked green hat used to hang in our hallway, alongside photos of him, his father and his brother. I grew up trusting the cops, hence my instinct to talk to a Catholic doctor. The anti-RUC civil rights movement did not begin until 1968. The Catholic doctor was wonderfully reassuring. Wrap my friend in a bath towel and dressing gown and bring my friend to him at once in a taxi, he said. There would be no report to a police officer. I said that I had no towels left and he gave me two with a signed note to my friend.
It is in hideous memory of her near death through back-street abortion that I will vote Yes to legalising abortion in the campaign to amend the Eighth, next Friday, albeit with reservation.
The main reservation is that I literally don't know what we will be voting for, because we don't know what legislation will replace the Eighth. Simon Harris has suggested abortion legislation to replace it, but these are suggestions only, and not binding.
Abortion legislation to replace the Eighth will be in the hands of a mainly male legislature, drawn from the Dail and Senate. These men will decide the future and fate of Irish women in the face of a general election and tour of Dublin by Pope Francis.
"Your vote means everything," declares the independent government-issued guide to the forthcoming referendum. Everything does not include a single word about abortion in the vote. This is a referendum, which dare not speak its full name. Far from it, the guide assures voters that, whether citizens vote Yes or No, the right to travel abroad and to information on "the termination of pregnancy" will remain in Irish law. That means complete silence on the issue of whether or not abortion means the killing of a baby or the termination of a potential life.
An even bigger silence surrounds the "pro-life campaign" which does not address the issue of homelessness or the cost of childcare or lack of social housing facing women in crisis pregnancy. Their ''compassion and concern for mother and baby'' ends with birth, after which mother and child are on their own in emergency accommodation - looking out the window at that little patch of blue which prisoners call the sky.
The good news is that a Yes vote to repeal the Eighth puts the national conversation on abortion firmly on the Irish government agenda. That shifty silence will be broken.
For once, power over our lives lies firmly in the hands of women voters - male politicians will scrutinise and count the turnout in their constituencies, checking their re-election chances. Their jobs are on the line, as are the lives of women.
I'm voting Yes for the health, and lives and safety of women.
I'm voting Yes to end back-street abortion. I've seen it and it was frightening. A teenager near you is in bleeding agony right now through the illegal use of abortion pills.
Help her by voting yes.