Positive: Abortion In Northern Ireland
Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
The author has requested to remain anonymous.
I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom with my head in my hands: it had been one week since the test had proved positive; ten days to go until the procedure. I sat on the floor and thought about everything I’d ever been taught about responsibility and the sanctity of life, and I tried to make myself cry. I tried to summon sadness, to instill some small feeling of remorse, but I couldn’t do it. From the instant I realised I was pregnant I knew what my decision would be. I felt no fear, no guilt, no apprehension, but rather a calm, quiet resolution that this was the right thing to do.
I was twenty three years old and had been living in Scotland for four years. My time at university was nearly over but I had no plans to leave my home away from home. I had built a life for myself away from Northern Ireland, but in so doing had grown increasingly concerned with the administration’s policies, particularly regarding women’s rights.
I am passionate and determined in my belief that all women everywhere should have safe and legal access to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, just as so many people I know in Northern Ireland are passionate and determined in their belief that a fœtus is a human life which should be preserved and protected. My fear is that this passion and this determination is blinding so many of us from the crux of the issue – that this conversation does not belong in Stormont, it belongs to women. By denying women the right to have this conversation – to form their own opinions and to make their own decisions – the government encourages a stigma that consistently proves to be deeply damaging in people’s lives, and is readily accepted by our neighbours as a breach of human rights.
I knew I had the option for a safe and legal procedure. The absence of stigma meant that at no point did I feel the need to be secretive or ashamed – at least not in Scotland. My GP discussed possible options with me, took the time to encourage me to seek emotional support, and made all the arrangements with the health clinic. The nurse at the clinic was professional and kind. She made sure I understood the full reality of what the abortion would involve, and the ways I could be affected – both physically and mentally. Another nurse helped me decide on a new contraceptive method, to be implanted during the procedure. My flatmate drove me to every appointment. My boss told me to take as much time as I needed. A friend sat in the waiting room for six hours while I was in the hospital, then took me to McDonald’s afterwards. I was prepared for the bleeding, and I was given medication to make the ensuing abdominal pain more manageable. I was never scared, I was never made to feel morally abhorrent, and I have never regretted it.
A few months after my termination, a nineteen year old woman in Belfast took drugs she bought online to induce a miscarriage. She didn’t follow through with her plans to travel to England for an abortion because she couldn’t afford it. She bought the pills without proper medical counsel . She wasn’t surrounded with healthcare professionals to help her prepare, or to offer advice. She had no network of emotional support. She took the pills, she passed the fœtus and she disposed of it herself because she felt like she had no other choice. Two years later this woman’s story was widely publicised when she pleaded guilty to “procuring her own abortion by using a poison,” and was given a suspended sentence.
I read her story now and wonder about how she must have felt when her test proved positive. When I imagine her fear and isolation, when I think about the pain she must have felt and the trauma she must still experience, then I have no trouble shedding tears.
Legalising abortion does not endorse it. On the contrary there should be regulations, there should be safeguards, but there should also be a comprehensive sex education programme in our national curriculum. There should be wider access to advice regarding contraceptive options; there should be discussion of sexually transmitted diseases without fear-mongering; and when young women choose to take such agonising action at the risk of their own physical and mental health, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why?
The reality is that the current legislation in Northern Ireland does not prevent women from accessing abortion, it prevents them from doing so safely. It prevents them from reaching out to friends and family for help, and from getting much-needed medical information from professionals. It prevents them from having autonomy over their own bodies and their own choices. It prevents me from putting my name at the top of this article.
Women should not be legally bound to an ultimatum. It’s time to introduce positive legislation that encourages women to exercise their reproductive rights safely, and that gives us the freedom to share our experiences with one another without the fear of being shamed.
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know are in a similar situation, there are resources out there to support you:
ASN is a charity that provides financial assistance, accommodation and confidential, non-judgmental information to women forced to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland and pay privately for abortions in England or occasionally abroad. The cost of this ranges from £400 to £2000 depending on circumstance and stage of pregnancy.
From Northern Ireland call: 07897 611593
From Ireland call: 015267370
From Isle of Man call: 07897 611593
Or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
BPAS works closely with organisations in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that women living there receive appropriate access to contraceptive information and abortion care.
From Northern Ireland call: 03457 30 40 30
From the Republic of Ireland call: +44 1789 508 211
The IFPA provides extensive information on both the legal position in the Republic of Ireland on abortion and the range of help available, as well as access to other sources of help.
From the Republic of Ireland call: 03457 30 40 30
These international organisations offer pills that are safe and effective medications but please note that they are not legal in Northern Ireland.
Women on Web is an international collective that answers thousands of help-emails every day in many languages from women around the world. As Women on Web helps women in very many countries, there is no phone number to the helpdesk, but they will respond to every email and will support you.
Women Help Women is an international group of activists, trained counselors and non-profit organizations and foundations. We bridge the gap between reproductive rights advocacy efforts and service provision.