Abortion - the personal trauma unveiled

Abortion has been one of the most emotive issues in this country for a generation or more. Since the adoption of the eighth constitutional amendment in 1983, covering the right to life of the unborn, Ireland has been polarised on the issue.

Pro-life campaigners have been vocal in their opposition to abortion being introduced in any form here. The strength of the Pro-choice response, from women's groups, family planning organisations and student's unions, has been equally passionate.

What may have been lost in the vigorous, detailed and often emotive debate are the realities of abortion for individual women. Indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of the recent 600 page all-party Oireachtas report on abortion was the failure to include any personal evidence from the very women affected. The committee defended this fact arguing that no women came forward.

Irish address

Three quarters of all foreign women attending British clinics for abortions give an address in Ireland. That works out at nearly 7,000 Irish women each year. There are undoubtedly more Irish women obtaining abortions in other countries, including Holland, America and Australia.

In fact, according to the most recent figures released by the British statistics office, in the first three months of last year there were 1,667 abortions performed in Britain on Irish women. During the same period, there were 13,894 births in Ireland. By that ratio, one in nine Irish pregnancies end in a British abortion.

Economic researchers estimate that the Irish exchequer benefits to the tune of over 60,000 a year in the transport taxes alone paid by those travelling for an abortion. Airlines and ferry companies earn around 7,500 per day from these same women.

So far the voices of many of these women have been missing from the national debate. A 1998 report, Women and Crisis Pregnancy, produced by researchers at Trinity College Dublin did add to the debate and included interviews with women who had crisis pregnancies. However, the report, which was commissioned by the Health Minister in 1993, was published with the main recommendations not included.

Still a taboo

Shame, and the public taboo that surrounds abortion, has helped to silence the mouths of those with the most relevant experience to contribute to the debate.

The publication of a new book, 'The Irish Journey', by the Irish Family Planning Association, is an attempt to rectify the dearth of personal detail and the human angle in the whole abortion controversy. In the book, 18 women who travelled in search of an abortion in Britain recount their experiences, in their own words. The texts are slight, only a few hundred words each, but are all the more powerful for it.

The stories evoke an entirely different set of powerful emotions to the ones stoked by the abstract debate. They express the sorrow, regret, sadness, shame and anger of women caught by a crisis pregnancy and forced to make an invidious choice. No matter what their personal stance on abortion may be, no reader could fail to be moved by these glimpses into a reality our society has preferred to bury under raucous political dispute.

Shock

Take Kate, for instance. A young teenage girl from a good family. Her parents were shocked to realise that she was already sexually active when they discovered that she was pregnant. This kind of crisis pregnancy is one that takes its toll on an entire family.

"Both alternatives felt like a nightmare", writes Kate's mother in 'The Irish Journey'. "Kate to continue the pregnancy, to become a mother at fifteen, what would that do to her life? Kate was too young emotionally to be a mother; I knew that… Adoption wasn't an option - I couldn't have coped with that, and would never risk the damage it might do to Kate."

Kate, with the support of her mother, travelled to England for an abortion. Having made the difficult decision, they felt that travelling somehow compounded the situation. "Before that, it was all mostly a private crisis, now it became public with cover stories and lies," her mother writes.

The shame and taboo that surrounds the issue of abortion silences women and forces them into lying to their nearest and dearest. This sense of skulking over to England, the fear of being found out in the lie, comes across strongly in all the stories contained within the book.

No stereotype

"The woman who goes for an abortion is everywoman", says Dr Sheila Jones, the Medical Director of the Irish Family Planning Association. "This book shows a whole variety of women. They are the people we have not heard from before, the women who actually went for abortion in England. These are real women we can identify with. They are our mothers, friends, sisters and daughters. None of them took the abortion lightly. There is no stereotype woman who goes to have an abortion."

The scenarios depicted in 'The Irish Journey' bear this out. Marie, an unmarried student became pregnant by a Nigerian law student in London, in the early Sixties. Abortion at that time was illegal in the UK, and Marie was forced to seek a back-street abortion. Her harrowing tale of being interviewed by the police while haemorrhaging in hospital opens the book.

Michele's story illustrates how trapped many women can feel by a pregnancy. Beaten regularly by her alcoholic husband, she discovered that she had become pregnant with his child. The decision to abort coincided with her decision to leave the abusive relationship she was in. "It was a turning point", she writes. "I took responsibility for the abortion, and after it, I took responsibility for myself and the children".

Dr Jones believes that rather than continue with the current polarised debate about abortion, we should attempt as a society to understand the reasons why thousands of Irish women choose, under tremendous personal stress, to travel to England each year.

"Over the years we have heard a lot about abortion from both sides of the argument," she states. "The debate in 1983 was a very nasty one and I would like to see that nastiness removed. If we listen to the voices of women, it might temper that emotion and lead to a more reasoned discussion".

"We should look at the reasons why women feel they can not become a parent at a particular time", she adds. "Abortion has always existed. We have to understand it, and find out why women choose not to parent a child".

The abortion debate in Ireland has often focused on either mythical or unusual scenarios. Some pro-choice lobbyists have promoted an image of careless and promiscuous Irish women choosing abortion as a lifestyle choice. Equally, many of the pro-choice arguments in favour of legalising abortion in the early 1990s were based on the C and X cases, both of which featured very young victims of rape.

Ordinary women

While undoubtedly there are cases of both among the thousands of Irish women obtaining British abortions, the vast majority of those who travel are ordinary individuals, caught in a crisis. A particularly poignant case in the book is that of Jean, a 45 year old woman who found, after seven children and two miscarriages, that she was pregnant again.

The family could not face another pregnancy, either financially or emotionally. A traditional woman, Jean could not believe that she was going to have an abortion, but decided to write her story for the 'people like me who never thought that this would ever happen to them'.

Irish Times journalist, Medb Ruane, who introduces the book, attributes the silence and shame experienced by women like Jean to 'a combination of dogmatically driven medical ethics and a state dominated by a fundamentalist brand of Roman Catholicism'. Certainly for a number of women, the contradiction between their church's stance on abortion and their own personal experience has led to an unfortunate degree of stress and shame.

Ms Ruane says that opposition to abortion is a recent addition to Catholic doctrine, adopted along with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the 19th century. She recounts a story where Saint Brigid encounters a young woman who has a crisis pregnancy. The saint, associated with fertility in all its forms, prays and blesses the woman, whereupon the foetus in the woman's womb disappears.

The ramifications for many Catholic Irish women can be immense - undergoing an abortion automatically excommunicates them from their church.

Men's role

Evidently, better understanding of the situations that surround crisis pregnancies is required, not simply by the church or those deeply involved on both sides of the abortion debate, but by society in general. Dr Jones would like to see more men assuming a greater role in crisis pregnancies, since of course they had more than a little hand a hand in bringing these situations about.

"Men are involved in women's decisions about abortion", she argues. "But I think that a lack of male support often leads women to decide against parenting a child. In the end, it is the woman who bears the baby and takes the main responsibility for rearing the child. I would like the public to read this book. It should help them understand better why women seek an abortion".

As the medical director with the IFPA, Dr Jones is particularly concerned about the health ramifications for women who travel for abortions in Britain. An abortion is, first and foremost, an invasive medical operation. Dr Jones points out that as the women she sees must travel to the UK, they are having later abortions, which are more dangerous.

"Irish women travel later because they have to raise the money and make the arrangements to get themselves to England", she explains. Her main concern, however, is that shame keeps women from admitting that they have had an abortion, even to their own family doctor.

Health check

"Women go for an abortion in the UK and there is no communication between their GP and the clinic in UK. Many women do not seek a medical check-up afterwards", she says. While technically, a termination of pregnancy is a simple surgical procedure, because it is invasive as with any operation, some women need a follow-up health check. This should ideally take place around two weeks after the procedure. Because of the stigma and the taboo around abortion, this rarely occurs".

With the number of abortions performed on Irish women in the UK now having exceeded 100,000, there are clearly many thousands of women living in silence about their experience, while around them the debate rages. It was telling that when the IFPA launched 'The Irish Journey', not one of the women whose stories were included felt that they could read their experiences in public.

There are fresh political moves to have yet another referendum on the issue. The government is reportedly under pressure from its back benchers and from independent TDs to have a referendum, to ban abortion and to reverse the Supreme Court X case decision of 1992. It that landmark case, the court ruled that an abortion could be permitted in Ireland, if the mother's life was endangered buy the risk of suicide.

Referendum pressure

The recent all party Oireachtas report put forward several new options, along with a plan to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies. On the so-called substantive issue, the options proposed are: leaving the current legal position unchanged, legislation to protect current medical intervention or a ban on abortion through a referendum, while legislating for best medical practice.

Having gone through the trauma of a crisis pregnancy and the terror of making a choice 'no woman wants to make', the shame and silence that society then imposes is an unnecessary and cruel response. Whatever one's personal position on the issue of abortion, it is hard not to be moved by the reality of these women's experiences.

'The Irish Journey', at 9.95, is published by the IFPA and is available in bookshops around the country.

Written by Jim Clarke of irishhealth.com.


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