These stories are all from women in Northern
Ireland who have needed abortions.
(TW: domestic violence, abuse, sexual violence)
Abortion Diary Entry 133: Rosa, 34 (Liverpool, England 2007)
Rosa shares her story of needing to travel to England from Northern Ireland for an abortion. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland.
Some names have been changed to protect the women and their families.
Maggie from South Belfast
I needed an abortion. I didn’t want an abortion – I needed one. I have never met a woman yet who has had an abortion and ‘wanted’ one. Yes my circumstances were complicated, but then again for a woman who chooses to have an abortion the circumstances are always complicated, aren’t they? If they aren’t complex before she chooses, then the stigma, shame, secrecy and process of accessing an abortion, whether in the North or South of Ireland, will certainly complicate that decision for her.
I don’t intend describing my reasons for needing an abortion. I have always been concerned about the dichotomy between a ‘good’ abortion and a ‘bad’ abortion. I don’t believe that some women need abortions more than others- if it is couched in a moral narrative, then there are good and bad women and quite simply, that isn’t choice, it is judgement.
My decision to have an abortion was taken in what I can only describe as the best of circumstances. I had a supportive partner, I was already a mother and I was well informed on the issue of choice before I became pregnant. Nonetheless it was still necessary for me to take advice and consult with both a medical practitioner and family planning about my decision. They were extremely supportive, but I do recall the doctor saying, ‘I won’t put this on your medical record – no-one does.’ I don’t think she was making a moral judgement – she was stating a fact. Society has made it possible for doctors to expunge what should be, routine medical procedures from medical records and erase them as indiscretions of some sort. Usually they are women’s records and usually they are something to do with sex and pregnancy, because when it comes down to it, despite all the advances we have made, women can’t really do as they please with their own bodies. So there is no record of my medical abortion. The records ‘record’ that it didn’t happen.
When I sought advice on my options, the counsellor was also extremely supportive and well informed. She wasn’t coercive and didn’t try to influence me in any way. She presented the facts, clarified the legalities and explained the costs. I earn, what I consider to be, a median wage and balked at what it would end up costing. It struck me how anyone on a low income or on benefit could possibly afford that amount. At least I could put mine on my credit card for now and I did.
When I left the counsellor that day, I encountered the so-named ‘pro-life protestors’ for the first time. I hadn’t engaged with them but I knew they had paid close attention when I had entered the building that day, as they do with most women who use that same building. I was around 40 years old when I chose to have an abortion something it transpired, that the protestors had taken note of. There were three of them, two women and one man. As I left, one woman blocked my path and attempted to give me leaflets. I declined, at which point she told me that a woman of ‘my age’ was more at risk of getting breast cancer if I went ahead with an abortion. She went on to point out they could help and after a brief engagement with them, I went on my way. The protesters weren’t aggressive, they didn’t strike me as fanatical and they didn’t mention God once. What struck me afterwards was their ability to manipulate. I had seen their posters and display boards previously and knew they advertised all sorts of claims by quacks and medical hacks in far-away places, warning women of which particular disease they could fall foul of if they had an abortion. I knew their claims were nonsense, but afterwards I wondered what other stories they had and did they have range of tales for different ‘types’ of women? Did they take one good look at a woman and decide ‘Ok she’s forty, we’ll use the breast cancer one’. Did they take a good look at another that day and decide ‘Ok this one is young and vulnerable, we’ll use the ‘you’ll regret this for the rest of your life one’. Did they look at the woman who was with her mother that day and say ‘ This is your grandchild your daughter is killing’. Having spoken to women who have accessed abortions, I stopped wondering – that’s exactly what they do and it isn’t protesting at all. It’s clever, it’s manipulative and it is interfering with a woman and her bodily autonomy. It is abuse.
I travelled to Manchester for my abortion a short while later and was accompanied by my partner. I lied to my employer. I planned my abortion for the Friday so I didn’t have to take two days off work and could use the weekend to recover. I had a routine surgical abortion under general anaesthetic and the staff at the clinic were professional, caring and understanding. It was as straightforward as it could be and after a number of hours, it was done and I was out in good time to get the flight home. Throughout the day, I had noticed a woman with Northern Irish accent and another with Southern Irish accent and surmised they had made the journey in the same circumstances.
I travelled back to the airport and had to wait quite a few hours for the flight home. Not long after, I began to feel ill. The painkillers hadn’t worn off, but I suspected that I might be reacting to the anaesthetic, as it was something that had happened in the past with a routine medical procedure. I was and within a short space of time, I was vomiting profusely, had a high temperature and eventually fainted. Needless to say, my partner was also upset and the attendant at the airport insisted I received medical help. He asked if I had ‘taken something’. I told him I hadn’t and declined any offer of medical help. I knew that I would have to tell them that I had some sort of procedure and given well-trodden journey made by many women before me, they would of course guess it was an abortion. I also knew that if I was too unwell, they wouldn’t let me fly. I became so ill, that my partner had to get me a wheelchair and for the next four hours, I sat in one of the airport cafes beside a bathroom, going between the two and trying not to draw attention to myself. One of the women I had seen earlier in the clinic came in to the café and I saw her again on the flight home. We didn’t exchange smiles or friendly glances as you might do in other circumstances, but we both knew the other had had an abortion that day and it was best forgotten.
We eventually boarded the plane, but not before we drew the attention of the attendant, who asked if I was unwell and if I needed some assistance. I panicked at the thought of not being able to get on the plane, reach home and get into my own bed. The thought of another night, spent in a hotel and not in my own surroundings filled me with dread. I told the attendant that I seemed to have had some sort of bug and if I could sit at the back of the plane, that would be enough. After an uncomfortable flight, we eventually arrived home and I was never so glad to see it.
The next day, I woke up and felt better physically, but was incredibly angry and that anger has never left me. I wasn’t angry about the abortion, I wasn’t angry about being unexpectedly ill – that’s just one of those things and whilst unlikely, it happens. I was angry about what I was forced to go through to access an abortion. An unnecessarily complex, expensive process of secrecy, judgement and humiliation, all of which was compounded by the awful journey and being forced to travel. One where, following a surgical procedure I couldn’t even go back to my own house without waiting for hours before boarding a plane, all the while trying not to mention the discomfort and pain I was in. But that’s the thing – we don’t mention it. It’s an abortion. I thought about all the women who travel on their own and are forced to stay in hotels and hostels overnight. I counted myself lucky that at least I was accompanied and that I got home eventually.
A week or two later I listened to a male relative who travelled to England for a routine operation because he couldn’t access the service here. The NHS paid for surgery, paid for his travel and three night’s accommodation in a hotel for recovery. That was right, proper and the humane thing to do. I thought of the thousands of women who have or who will travel to England and elsewhere every year to access abortion and how their experience is so very different. Most of those women don’t want to tell their story, they don’t want to get on a flight, they don’t want to stay in cheap hotels or hostels, they don’t want to lie to their employers and their families, they don’t want to complain and they don’t want to talk about their pain or discomfort. They want to be able to access abortion in Ireland without the need to travel. Why is that so much to ask?
Gemma spent Christmas Day in casualty with her two children. Her husband had beaten her to a pulp and had stomped so hard on her that his boot marks were visible on her chest and back. When her eldest child tried to intervene, he took off his belt and beat both children, leaving black and blue welts all down their little bodies from the back of their necks down to their ankles. He had repeatedly raped Gemma. Six weeks later she discovered she was pregnant. She could not continue with the pregnancy and knowing her husband would carry out his threats to kill her if he found out, she went to her GP. Her GP told her that abortion was illegal in Northern Ireland and refused to help her. Gemma had to contact ASN in secret but at last she found someone who would help her.
Louise knew that something had changed in her body. She told her mummy. Her mummy got her to pee on a stick and after a wee while she told Louise that she was pregnant, she was going to have a baby. She asked Louise who she had been with. Louise couldn’t tell her. She had been sworn to secrecy and would be in trouble if she told. Louise didn’t want to have a baby. She wanted to go to school. At 13 she thought she was too young to have a baby. Louise’s mummy took her to her doctor to get help. When the doctor spoke to Louise about what happened, Louise immediately felt that she could tell her and so she did. She told the doctor all about her uncle and what he had been doing to her for the last six years. The doctor listened. Her mummy cried. The doctor explained that she would have to tell some other people, including the police, to make sure Louise was safe and that her uncle would not hurt her again. Louise was afraid but glad she had told. She asked the doctor about having an operation so that she would not have a baby. The doctor explained that she couldn’t have the operation here but that she would have to go to England and that the police would have to go with her to gather evidence as they may have to arrest and charge her uncle for what he did to Louise. Louise was afraid. She didn't want to go to England with the police. She wanted to stay at home with her mummy. The doctor explained what would happen if Louise stayed home, she could have the baby or give the baby to a couple who would look after it. The doctor explained what would happen if she went to England and what the operation would involve. Louise wanted to think about it. Two days later she chose to go to England. Her mummy went with her. So did two police officers. One of the officers was present when Louise had her operation and they took away the evidence.
Sarah had been on the pill since after the birth of her sixth child. She and her husband had already decided they were having no more children and he was considering a vasectomy when Sarah became pregnant again. He had just become unemployed. Their youngest was 10 months old and they were really struggling financially. They discussed their options and agreed they could not afford to have another child. Sarah went to her GP who told her that abortion was illegal in NI and she could not have one. The GP did not give her any information or offer to refer her to another doctor. He said he would book her into maternity services. Sarah was stunned. She and her husband looked on the internet and rang a clinic in England. They were told the procedure would cost £600 and they would have to pay for their own flights and accommodation on top of that. When they checked flights the cost went up to over £1000. There was no way they could afford that. Even if Sarah travelled by herself they could still not afford it. The most they could scrape together was £200. They did not know what to do. They rang the clinic again and explained their circumstances and the clinic suggested they contact a support organisation. This provided some support but Sarah and her husband had to wait another two weeks and sold some items of furniture and some of their children toys to get the rest of the money. Sarah travelled alone to England and came back the same day contrary to the advice of the doctor at the clinic. She couldn't afford the overnight stay. Sarah wanted to have her abortion in NI, with her husband by her side, in a local hospital, without having to sell her children’s toys to pay for her operation.