Janet O’Sullivan travelled from Ireland to the UK to have an abortion more than 20 years ago. And this is still happening, why?
Janet O’Sullivan is a member of the Abortion Rights Campaign, working to end the stigma surrounding abortion and to move towards free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland. She lives in Dublin with her two children and has recently returned to full-time education, pursuing a degree in communication studies at Dublin City University.
I had an abortion. That is one of many facts about me. Here, have some more: I have hazel eyes, I am an avid reader, I have a son and a daughter, I hate salt and vinegar crisps.
None of those facts should define for you who I am as a person. None of those facts are that unusual, not when I am one of at least 170,000 women who have travelled to the UK and had an abortion.
There are 170,000 of us and there are even more who didn’t give an Irish address and more still who have travelled to other countries.
“The nuns in my school talked about the evil of abortion and handed out tiny foetus feet Precious Feet pin badges.”
Abortion, unless there is an immediate risk to the life of the woman, is not legal in Ireland. In 2013 a new law called the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed, putting in place a criminal sentence of up to 14 years for anyone having or performing an abortion in Ireland.
I had my abortion when I was 18 and contraception failed. Even while I waited for the pregnancy test result, I knew I did not want to continue the pregnancy. I was working, was planning on going to college and I knew I was too young.
A mere two years earlier the Irish public and I were rocked by what has become known as the X Case. This was the case of a 14-year-old-girl who was raped, became pregnant and wanted an abortion but had a legal order barring her from leaving the country to obtain one. At the time the nuns in my school talked about the evil of abortion and handed out tiny foetus feet Precious Feet pin badges. My classmates all put them on but my sympathies were with the 14-year-old.
Travelling to have my abortion was not an easy thing to do. Money had to be sorted, passport, accommodation, time off work and lies to be told to workmates and family about where we were going and what we were doing. My partner at the time came with me and he could not have been more supportive. But there were many, many unknowns, which didn’t help.
This is why, when I did go on to start college, I became a point of information for other women who needed to travel for an abortion. I was the women’s officer of the students’ union and had all kinds of women come to see me looking for information, from fellow students to married women who already had children and could not travel up to Dublin to get the information.
I travelled with other women, I gave them as much information as possible when I couldn’t travel with them and I was there for them afterwards, whether it was offering tea, hugs and a hot water bottle or being there for them on the end of a phone line or by email.
I have lost count how many women have come to me for information over the last 20 years. I am grateful that now I can refer them on to the Abortion Support Network, who can help them with travel information and in case they need it, a small amount of money.
I have always been extremely open about being pro-choice but it was only after I got involved with the setting up of the Abortion Rights Campaign I started being open about the fact I had an abortion myself.
“This year’s march was even more poignant as I was joined by my daughter, now a young teenager campaigning for her own rights. We marched, chanting, ‘Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide’ and ‘No more plane fares, we need healthcare.’”
At the meeting in January 2012 when the name of the campaign was announced I spoke to the 150 people who had gathered there to work for abortion rights in Ireland and to change our constitution and said thank you.
I told them I was a woman who had travelled for an abortion and that I did not want my daughter to ever have to do the same. I told them I had been silenced by the stigma surrounding the word abortion in Ireland and that the name Abortion Rights Campaign would help break down that stigma. It was the first time many of them had heard a stranger say those words.
I have gone from standing in a room with 150 people who support me and women like me and our right to choose, to being able to take part in the Annual March for Choice, which went through Dublin last Saturday. There were thousands of pro-choice people, who know that now is the time to change our constitution so we can have free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland and women choosing their own future.
This year’s march was even more poignant as I was joined by my daughter, now a young teenager campaigning for her own rights. The day was bright and warm and the atmosphere was amazing.
We marched, chanting, “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide” and “No more plane fares, we need healthcare.” The rally at the end saw speakers from Aims Ireland (the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services Ireland), the Irish Traveller Movement, Doctors for Choice and many more, all of whom spoke out for the need for change.
After the speeches I headed to the playground in the park beside the rally to help co-host the Parents for Choice picnic. One of the many myths about abortion is that women who have children don’t have abortions but BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) reports that the majority of women who have an abortion in the UK already have children. Prams were parked under the trees, packed lunches brought out and shared as toddlers were given carrot sticks and infants breastfed while we shared our stories.
The March for Choice renewed my spirit, my determination and my hope that we will change our constitution and our laws well before my daughter considers starting her own family.
For more information about the Abortion Support Network visit www.abortionsupport.org.uk3999 Views