Content warning: eating disorders, repeal referendum
On May 28, 2015 I travelled from Dublin to Manchester for a surgical abortion.
For me, the decision to have an abortion was not a particularly difficult or distressing one. It is the stigma surrounding abortion that has affected me the most. Having to travel in secret, continuing to hide it from my family, and battling through this referendum has placed a severe toll on my mental and physical health. But I do not regret my abortion; for me, it was the right choice.
This time three years ago I realised I might be pregnant. Afraid of being found out, I smuggled two tests to the McDonalds on Grafton, where my fears were confirmed. My heart raced, vision blurred, and the walls of the already tiny cubicle seemed to close in. Twenty minutes and a few deep breaths later, I was back, sitting in a revision lecture, trying to fake the right balance between calm and excited as I discussed Trinity Ball outfits with a friend.
I was days away from essay deadlines, and weeks from exams. Although my family are not particularly religious or conservative, a pregnancy, never mind the decision to have an abortion, would not have been well-received, and I could not think of a reason my parents would believe for suddenly going away on an overnight trip so close to the end of term.
So I decided to wait the two months between the positive test and my boyfriend finishing exams, so that we could travel together. While the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) crisis pregnancy counsellors were incredibly helpful, the College doctor was completely bewildered, and had no idea what to tell me. A few months ago, when I considered deferring the year, I tried to engage with the student counselling service. Two different counsellors gave me their view on the referendum, and said I should just stop following the news. I felt worse coming out than I did going in.
Over the eight weeks I waited, I wrote essays, sat exams, turned 20, attended birthdays, pretended everything was normal. We delayed travel by another few days so we could vote for marriage equality. I don’t know whether to be hurt or relieved that no one suspected anything.
Unable to completely control my situation, I tried to control my body in other ways, becoming obsessed with my eating habits. In May, the morning sickness started. Even when I wanted to eat, the stubborn knot of anxiety that tightened as I lied to my family day after day made it incredibly difficult. This caused me to lose over a stone in weight within a few weeks.
When the time finally came and we arrived in Manchester, a taxi driver collected us from the airport and brought us to the clinic, a free service for exiles. Outside the large redbrick building we saw an elderly woman wearing a long purple coat, standing slightly hunched and clutching what we later realised were rosary beads. Our driver informed us that nuns took shifts outside the clinic each day, maintaining a constant vigil.
Ironically, as our driver said this, his manager radioed in to give his permission for the driver to go on a break and answer the call to prayer. It struck me that, while Islam is so often depicted as a highly conservative, sexist, and strict religion, bound up with stories of female submissiveness and harsh penalties for female “sexual crimes” such as adultery, here we were, guided to an abortion clinic by a friendly, supportive, and non-judgemental Muslim man, and tutted at by a conservative, prejudicial Christian woman.
Of the 15 of us in waiting the room, I was one of the youngest, apart from an underage girl with her mother. We were black, white, brown, tanned, cream. Some wore work clothes, others tracksuits, others abayas. No one cried, no one looked upset, no one even looked pregnant.
There is no one story, there is no “type” of person who gets an abortion. There is only circumstance and necessity.
Having again discussed the procedure and risks, things took a confusing turn when I met with a second nurse, who, on performing an ultrasound, asked how many weeks along I was. I said ten; she frowned a little and noted ‘size: 6 weeks’ on my form. On consulting another nurse, and then another, she concluded that I was miscarrying.
Abortion or not, lying on a paper-covered bed in a foreign country with your pelvis lathered in lubricant, vulnerable and alone, is not the way to find out that your 20-year-old body, in its reproductive prime, has failed on its first pregnancy.
I was not sad that the pregnancy was not viable, as I had never envisioned it developing into anything more. Rather, I was afraid for my future, for the children I had planned to have in ten years’ time. Was I sick? Did I have an undiagnosed condition? A tumour maybe? Did this mean I was infertile?
The nurses were so incredibly kind, fast-tracking my file so that I could see the doctor as quickly as possible. With an underlying condition, I was classed as “at risk,” because my body could complete the miscarriage at any time. They feared haemorrhaging or infection, which, untreated, could have resulted in sepsis.
I later asked the doctor whether I could have been treated at home. As there were still some signs of viability, he informed me that, under Irish law, doctors could not act until I had actually miscarried. He said although flying was a risk, I had in fact taken the safer option.
I could not believe that, had I been intending to continue with the pregnancy, I would have ended up in Manchester regardless. I still cannot believe that the state will not allow our doctors to give unbiased advice on the safest course of action when faced with a problematic pregnancy or miscarriage, and that, had I not been able to travel, I would have had to go about my daily life, knowing I could begin to haemorrhage at an point, knowing that if the miscarriage completed in my sleep, I may not have noticed the blood until it was too late.
Knowing that I could not be treated in Ireland until my life was on the line. That I quite literally could have died sometime over the last three weeks.
That thought haunted me as we waited nine hours in the airport for our flight home. Most of the time was spent sprawled out on a café table, clutching my abdomen and squirming at the waves of cramps. Every 40 minutes I’d spring from the table and run towards the bathroom with my hand clamped over my mouth, sure that it was more than just nausea this time.
I bled and bled and bled while sitting on the cold steel seats. All I wanted was to be at home on the sofa, with a hot water bottle against my tummy, the old reliable basin by my side, and a large Penny’s blanket swaddling me, safe and secure like the times when I had been sent home sick from school as a child years before.
Once landed, and in too much pain to go home, we booked into an airport hotel. Entering our twentieth hour of travel, my boyfriend passed out almost immediately. I didn’t sleep at all for fear of accidentally soiling the pure white hotel sheets.
I returned home the following day, back from a “weekend away with the girls”. No-one else knew. With an issue as controversial as this, it’s hard to know who you can trust, and how people will react.
Day two was worse than the first, and the pain got so bad that I blacked out twice. Once in bed, and once on the bathroom floor of my family home at 4am. Thankfully, I came around before anyone found me.
The bleeding was heavy and clotted, but I did not have enough credit to ring the UK number I had been given. I should have gone to the hospital, but I had no cover story. In retrospect, my decision to stay at home was ridiculous, but at the time I was paralysed by fear of causing a rift in my family.
At least that was my only fear. Had I self-induced, without being able to prove that the abortion had taken place outside of Ireland, seeking medical attention would have risked arrest, exposure, and/or a jail sentence of up to 14 years.
Soon after I had the abortion, I spent some time abroad. While looking through my things to send on insurance details, my sister came across my referral letter from the IFPA. We’d never really talked about abortion; she assumed that I’d told my friends when it happened, but not her. She thought I’d kept it from her in fear of being judged.
While we are very close, this thought hurt her so much that she barely spoke to me while I was away. She never mentioned it, but I finally worked it out. She is pro-choice, but has a health condition that will likely cause complications in pregnancy.
While she supports me, it is understandably difficult to watch someone give up a chance you may never have. She was worried that, given the stigma and silence, I hadn’t had the chance to fully talk through my decision. She asked whether I realised this might be the only time I’d fall pregnant. I did. We both cried when I told her I’d miscarried anyway, and was too afraid to go to the GP to find out why.
The past few months have been like torture. Breaking up with my boyfriend meant cutting myself off from the one person who completely understood, who had listened to me vent time and time again, who had always been there. While leaving a long-term relationship is never easy, choosing to walk away from your entire support structure made it all the more difficult.
Although he was amazing while I made my decision, when I spoke to him recently about sharing our experience to help break the stigma, he shut down. There are people in both of our lives who are vehemently anti-abortion, and I felt it was only fair to consult him before outing both of us.
He said I was strong, and that he really had no role in the story; that it would be better for both of us if I changed the dates and said it was a one night stand. I had walked away from the relationship, he said, and as it was something we’d gone through as a couple he would have stood by me if we were together, but now that it’s over, he didn’t see the point in getting “dragged down” with me.
I can understand his reaction, of not feeling regret but still feeling shame, because I feel it, too. Every time I’ve left the library to cry, every time I’ve hidden under the covers because I can’t face going to class, every time the tutting starts at a family event, every time I hear the words “personal responsibility”.
While I know our culture wrongly vilifies female sexuality in all its forms, especially those who enjoy sex for the sake of pleasure and not reproduction, I can’t help but feel that I deserve at least some of this, because I put myself in this situation.
I’ve seriously considered deferring and repeating the year in September 2018. There comes a point when it is all just too difficult. There are only so many times you can put up with the flashbacks brought on by pink “Love Both” badges, graphic six foot anti-choice banners, and online “baby killer” comments causing you to relive sweating and shaking in Manchester Airport, your clammy face pressed against the cold metal café table, fingers clasping its sides in pain, so tightly that the grooves of the metal remained imprinted on your skin for hours – and yet your top priority is that you have your cover story straight, sending the all-important 7pm text that the spa was great, you’re getting ready with the girls now, and are all heading out for dinner at 8.
The final weeks of one of the most vicious referendums this country has faced will run parallel to both the exact dates of my pregnancy, and my thesis submission and final year exams. While this is difficult, what is worse is not being allowed to just forget. I am reminded daily of the frustration I feel about my parents holding the views they do, deepening a rift they do not even realise exists.
And yet, I so often end up frustrated at myself for simultaneously wanting to be angry with them and understanding where they are coming from. Mam works with children with physical and mental disabilities. She, and some of the parents she has worked with, feel this campaign is a direct attack on their families. They see it as devaluing the life of a child born with a life-limiting condition.
People in our family have experienced miscarriages, stillbirths, and have borne children that have only survived for a few hours. For many, to allow for pregnancies to be ended is to belittle their loss. While this is a misrepresentation of the Repeal campaign, their fears are real, and need to be acknowledged and engaged with beyond protests and polarising statements so that this referendum can be carried.
I know that some people will twist what I have written, and argue that the stress caused by the stigma and silence surrounding abortion is actually evidence of how the procedure itself is damaging to women’s mental health. Time and again, this argument has been disproven.
But say it is true. What does keeping the Eighth Amendment really do? People still travel. People still self-induce illegally. I can tell you from personal experience that making people wait an extra few weeks, making them put “more effort” into getting an abortion, doesn’t give you time to reconsider. You’re isolated and alone, you shut yourself off because sometimes it’s just too exhausting to smile through it. You shut down because one person can only feel so much.
Repeal allows pregnant people to feel safe and supported in their decision making. Comprehensive sex education, freely available contraceptives, and better supports for parents, from state-funded childcare to extensive parental leave, are all changes necessary independent of whether or not abortion is legalised. But parenthood should always be a choice.
While it is acceptable to oppose abortion on a personal level, taking a political stance against abortion serves only to reinforce stigma and fear, to make rocky the road of those able to travel, and trap the ones who cannot, to restrict information and services so that we risk being exploited and misinformed, to isolate pregnant people, to shut down conversations around the various aspects of reproductive healthcare, and to impose personal beliefs on others, restricting the right to self-determination.
Abortion is a reality. We are a reality. We are more than the faceless twelve-a-day statistic.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, support is available from the following services:
womenhelp.org, [email protected]
British Pregnancy Advisory Service: www.bpas.ie, call +44 1789 508 211, or 0333 234 2184 from NI number
Irish Family Planning Association: www.ifpa.ie, call 1850 49 50 51
Student Counselling Service: (01) 8961407
TCDSUSU Welfare Team, or Damien on [email protected]