Comment: How a storytelling revolution has freed the women of Northern Ireland
It’s a bright, cold afternoon in Belfast.
I’ve come home to be with dozens of women – and a handful of men – crammed into the MAC theatre for an unusual celebration. We’re about to hear from an all-female panel, most of whom were criminals until a few days before.
Like everyone in the room – everyone in Northern Ireland – these women’s lives have been caught up in the Troubles. But they were not guilty of shootings, bombings or punishment beatings. They were victims of some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the world.
Until 22 October this year, abortion in Northern Ireland was a criminal offence, punishable by life in prison. Having been left out of the Abortion Act 1967, Northern Ireland was still operating under law from the 19th century.
In my lovely atheist family (a vanishingly rare thing in early 90s Belfast), the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 was part of my ‘birds and the bees’ talk. As the Troubles rumbled on, we used to joke that the one thing the Protestants and Catholics could agree on was that women should certainly not have control over their own bodies. We are good at black humour.
Outside our liberal front door, any discussion of abortion was mostly met not with rueful laughter, but towering horror. “Baby murderer!” the crowds outside the Brook Advisory Centre shouted, pictures of bloody foetuses held aloft as they staged their US-style protests. Women and girls edged round them to access support for their reproductive health from a rare safe and non-judgemental source.
The result was silence. And shame.
For despite the received wisdom that liberalisation of abortion was just not something that the people of Northern Ireland wanted, thousands of women were quietly getting on the boat or plane to England to access the healthcare they couldn’t get at home. In 2018, 1,053 made that trip; in 2017, the number was 861. This has been going on for decades. Until the silence was broken.
In the last few years, a critical mass of women staged a storytelling revolution across Ireland. Scores of women went public – whether in the papers, or anonymously through the In Her Shoes online campaign – to reveal their lived experience of abortion.
In the republic, it led to last year’s landmark referendum in which the country voted by a landslide to allow the government to legislate for abortion. In the north, things were more complicated (as is our way). In the end, the momentous change went through as an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, coming into force thanks to the continuing failure to restore the Northern Irish Assembly.
On stage in the MAC, performer and activist Kellie Turtle calls her abortion story “ridiculously normal”, and by Northern Irish standards, it is. Already a mother to two kids, she knew that she could not continue her pregnancy and had to fly to Liverpool for a termination. Kellie is among those who told her story in the media – humanising a public dialogue that had absented women from the decisions about their own bodies.
Decriminalisation is a huge step forward, but we are only beginning to look at how Northern Irish women will be able to actually access abortion services.
Until the law changed, however, she had been forced to leave out a pivotal part of her story. Before she went to Liverpool, she had taken safe – but illegal – pills to try and induce a miscarriage. According to campaigners, about a thousand women do this every year in Northern Ireland. Until last month, they did so in the knowledge that they could be arrested and go to prison for the rest of their lives. If they had to seek medical help, their doctors would be legally bound to report them.
It was not an idle threat. Earlier this year, a mother was charged with procuring abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter. The court heard that her daughter had been referred to a mental health counselling service by her GP; the service in turn informed Social Services, who alerted the police. The mother was facing a lengthy prison sentence. On 23 October, she was one of the first to see her life change thanks to the new law. She was acquitted, and could finally move on.
At the heart of the north’s triumphant grassroots campaign was the activist group, Alliance for Choice. Offering a counterbalance to the religious zealots waving bloody placards, they run friendly information stalls every weekend in Belfast city centre.
They faced more than cold feet and opprobrium for their trouble. They became a lightning rod for people who needed to tell their stories to someone, anyone. And thanks to Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, every time they listened and did not call the police, they too were guilty of an offence and could have been jailed.
In the MAC, we applaud their courage. The relief in this room is palpable, but so is the sense of determination. Decriminalisation is a huge step forward, but we are only beginning to look at how Northern Irish women will be able to actually access abortion services. The Northern Ireland Office has launched a public consultation on the new framework. We are aware that, unlike in the south, we are yet to have the opportunity to coax understanding from our fellow countrymen. Tired, but buoyed by success, these activists are ready to keep talking and fighting.
Their stories have done more than break down unjust abortion laws – they have chipped away at the enforced misogynist silence around the full range of women’s reproductive healthcare. The radical rejection of shame opens a door for all the conversations we don’t have – around menstruation, miscarriage, IVF, and chronic health problems like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.
The MAC event closes with a performance by feminist artist Amanda Palmer. “Isn’t it amazing,” she sings in Voicemail for Jill, her moving song about abortion, “how we can never tell who is in an identical hell.” Women shouldn’t have to hide this enormous part of their lives. The abortion campaigners in Ireland have shown the transformative power of refusing to keep it to ourselves.