Opinion

Tuesday 16 July 2019

'I have kept the story of my abortion a secret from everyone for 40 years'

Maeve Sheehan hears one woman's story of feeling 'so alone' as she kept her abortion secret from everyone

A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Before the internet or mobile phones or online bookings, more than 3,000 women a year travelled from Ireland to the UK to have an abortion.

This was the late 1970s and 1980s, an era when unmarried pregnant women were still consigned to Magdalene laundries. Others fumbled for coins in public phone boxes, clutching advertisements torn from the pages of British women's magazines. They are a largely silent generation of women, now in their 60s or 70s. Their stories are rarely heard. Most probably kept their heads down through decades of vitriolic public debate.

Siobhan, who is approaching 70, has kept her secret for four decades. And although she is sitting in a Dublin hotel with a journalist, she has never told her story to her husband, her children, her siblings, friends or extended family - and she doesn't think she ever will. For this reason, her name has been changed to protect her identity.

She is not an activist or a campaigner, nor even particularly political. Back in the 1970s, she was a housewife and harried mother of four children. Hers was the archetypal Catholic family in suburban Dublin in the 1970s.

"We were part of a community. There were a lot of women my age, married, in the community and a lot of us having children very quickly, one after the other. To a lot of us young married women, this was our lot, it seemed," she says.

Contraception was an unspoken matter that her devout Catholic husband left to his wife. After a succession of pregnancies, Siobhan decided to "take control".

"So that's when I took charge and I had a coil fitted," she says. "I had had my family… things were getting better financially. The kids were teenagers at school. I was free to be able to get a job."

Just as things were going well, Siobhan awoke one morning with a terrible pain in her back. Her local GP sent her for X-rays.

The tests showed that the coil had shifted into her womb. Further tests showed that she was pregnant. Her GP broke the news. Siobhan said she was "devastated". The last thing she wanted was to be pregnant again, and she was in pain.

"I had a coil that was inside the womb, that should really have been taken out. But to remove a coil was to take a risk of forcing a miscarriage," she says.

Siobhan was so distraught the GP sent her home and told her to come back in a few days. She had resolved not to tell her husband before she had even left the clinic.

"I believed that he would have been the one to make the decision about it, not me, and I felt that his decision would be to go ahead with the pregnancy. I knew I was in a different place than he would be with it," she says.

"At that time as well, Ireland wasn't a great place for women in terms of having power over decision-making. A woman couldn't get a mortgage on her own. The head of the house was listed on the census forms. He would have been the main wage-earner. Men did, in those days, make a lot of the decisions. I felt that this was one that he would make, and so I decided not to tell him. It was my issue and I had to find my solution to it."

She returned to her GP, clear in what she wanted to do.

"I told him I was going to go to England and I was going to have an abortion. He said: 'Well if you have decided to do that, it's my job to make sure you do that safely.' He went over to his filing cabinet, and he took out information, and he gave it to me. It was all the information I needed on how to do it, where to go, the phone number, the whole lot. I was very struck by his caring for me. This wasn't about the foetus or anything like that, this was about me being cared for. He knew a clinic that was well-known and safe, and that would do it properly, and in the right way."

Siobhan hid the information in her handbag. She had to go to a public phone box to make the surreptitious call. She had to arrange time off work, sort the children and come up with a cover story. She told her husband she was going to London to meet friends and go to the theatre, and he waved her off at the airport.

"I think the 'aloneness' just hit me when I landed in London. Hundreds of people were milling around and there I am with my little bag, feeling so alone," she said.

"I think if there was ever going to be a point that I was not going to go [through with it], it was when I landed in London. That was my most vulnerable point, just hitting down into London, into the big smoke of another country, on my own."

The clinic was efficient but she was shown no warmth. She had a tubal ligation, along with the termination, because she never wanted to be in that position again. She was kept in overnight. "It was probably the one and only time in my life where I have been somewhere for 24 hours where none of my family or friends - nobody - knew where I was," she says.

Afterwards, she felt "emotionally and physically battered". She wandered the shops buying trinkets for her family and checked into the hotel she had booked for the night. She wanted space to recover before she went home.

Back in Dublin, life continued as normal, except Siobhan now had a secret that she never shared with a soul.

When debate raged around the first referendum on abortion was held in Ireland in 1983 - which resulted in the Eighth Amendment being inserted into the Constitution - Siobhan kept her head down.

"Even now, I find I'm not inclined to engage in a heated discussion or argument around any of this. Even now, when I reflect back on it, I think what an ordeal that was to face on my own.

"There were mixed emotions at times, that would come and go around it. And then, of course, what strikes you very much is when you see some of the literature that they [the anti-abortion campaign] would use, a litter basket, and a baby being thrown into the litter basket. Foetuses in buckets. The sort of labelling that they are putting on people now, like you are a criminal and a murderer," she says.

"I thought, no way. This is the situation I found myself in and I felt I had the right to make a decision around this in my life that I believe was the best for everyone. Not just for me but for the whole family."

More than 35 years since her termination, Siobhan found herself at an exhibition in Dublin last November, about Irish women and abortion, and which invited women to submit their stories. When she was alone in the house one evening, she typed up her story on her iPad and emailed it, bashing it out at speed in case anyone should catch her. After decades of silence, even writing it was a relief, she says.

Telling a stranger is one thing. But Siobhan still can't bring herself to tell anyone she knows, least of all her family, fearing what they might think.

"It is the stigma and the fear of being judged. We are still moving slowly in accepting what women like myself had to do back in the day, generations of women, and still have to do," she says.

"I don't believe any woman makes a decision like this lightly. You agonise over it. It's heart-wrenching really, finding yourself in a position where you have to make a decision that you believe is best for everyone - and then, when you make that decision, and you realise the lonely road you have to go down to follow through with it," she says.

"I think, in this referendum, you have to trust women. You have to trust that women will do the right thing, not just for them and their families but for society in general."

Sunday Independent

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