Northern Ireland’s abortion laws make me ashamed to be Irish

It’s ridiculous that in 2016 girls are still being prosecuted

When I was a teenager, one of my friends got pregnant. I went to a Catholic convent school, like everyone else I knew, and she was obviously terrified. Not because the school would kick her out – we had a very modern Irish way of letting them wear trousers instead of a skirt with their uniform as their bump grew and pretending nobody was whispering about them behind their back – but because she wanted to go to university, have a normal life, not have a kid. And obviously, because abortion is illegal – still – in Northern Ireland, that means going to England for an abortion. At the time I didn’t know how to handle it. I wasn’t a very good friend. I panicked. I wasn’t there for the huge fights when she finally was able to tell her parents, for the silent flight to England, for the rumours at our school. When we later grew apart I regretted it, because I hadn’t supported her properly, but I could never say that. Because back then, and still now, nobody talks about abortion in Ireland.

Or they do, but in a certain way. The first time I learned, properly, abortion existed, it was from a pro-life stall which set itself up in Belfast city centre. They had a stall – outside Starbucks, in a capital city, in a town centre, because Ireland is modern now – with a life-size foetus diorama. They handed out graphic leaflets, holding the same kind of rhetoric that the Belfast Telegraph released today from the girls who reported their housemate for buying abortion pills online – when they talked about “wee babies” and said things like “He had fingers, little toes. Even now I just have a picture in my mind of it. Its wee foot was perfect”.

This is all pretty familiar chat, to be honest. The horror-film flyers the pro-lifers used to hand out talked about “button noses”, “fully formed little toes”. On the front the leaflets were covered in bloody foetuses cut in half – which weirdly, nobody ever complained about for being too explicit. They held out petitions for disgusted passers-by to sign, making sure we’d never let such horrible things come to Ireland. Before that, another friend had had a pregnancy scare, aged 14. When we went to the family planning clinic with her and she emerged crying hysterically, we assumed the worst. It turned out though, that when she’d asked a disapproving nurse “Am I pregnant”, she had responded “Well, what would you do if you were?”. (She wasn’t, by the way, but was sobbing despite that good news because of the miserable way it was delivered).

‘The unborn baby boy in this case is the silent victim, the little person pushed aside’

And it wasn’t just fundamentalists and health professionals. The anti-abortion, religious rhetoric seeped into normal people’s attitudes, which I accepted because I was young and didn’t know any better. My granny, who’s elderly and Catholic enough to be allowed to drink the wine at communion, said prayers every night where she blessed the souls of aborted babies, and gave them names, so that they could get into heaven. I had classmates who said it was right when one of our religion teachers stopped another teacher from forming an Amnesty International society at school (because they said abortion was OK when rape was used as a war crime). When my dad, who grew up in England, not Ireland, told me as a teenager that he believed it was a woman’s right to choose, it was a pretty groundbreaking opinion. It’s the attitude that freaked me out when I first had sex, because, realistically, you’re just one split condom or missed pill away from fucking everything up. Just like the girl who was given a suspended sentence, I wouldn’t have been able to raise the money to go to England for an abortion. It’s terrifying to think how quickly your life can be completely ruined by an unwanted pregnancy, just because you live in the wrong part of the UK.

OK, you’re thinking. Well that was years ago. That was while I was still at school. Things get better. But in Northern Ireland, they don’t really, to be honest, not for women, not while abortion is a mortal sin. When I was at uni at QUB the Marie Stopes clinic opened, and every day I would walk past a small but loud crowd of fundamentalists who would try to stop girls going inside. When a woman in the Republic of Ireland tried to get an abortion, she was told “this is a Catholic country” before dying of septicaemia. When we talked about abortion on one of Belfast’s biggest talk shows, this was the most civilised part of the discussion:

It makes me angry, and disgusted, and most of all it makes me embarrassed. I’m proud to be Irish, and I spend more and more time, now that I live outside Ireland, defending that. I was proud and emotional with everyone else when the Republic passed their equal marriage bill last year. I get annoyed when people make Irish jokes, I tell everyone how much we’ve moved on from refusing to supply cakes for gay people who want to get married or whatever other shitty thing we’re in the news for, but I can’t defend our abortion laws. As an Irish woman, they make us look backwards and bigoted. Our abortion laws don’t help Irish women. They didn’t help the girls I knew, and they didn’t help this girl by giving her a suspended sentence.