By Aedín O’Cuill, medical student and intern at IPPF and the UK Family Planning Association
When I was 16, my biology teacher was taking the class through a session on reproduction. After a discussion about contraception, she looked up at the class and asked tentatively, “Does anyone here agree with abortion? Sometimes people have different views.” Although the question could certainly have been phrased better, I now look back at this as an act of incredible bravery. You just don’t talk about abortion in Ireland. It felt uncomfortable, shocking even. My teacher exposed herself to a lot of potential hostility in what I’m now sure was an attempt to break the silence and stigma surrounding the topic.
At the time, I shook my head vehemently, and no one spoke up in defence of abortion. “Of course it’s wrong”, I thought. “It’s a life.” At 16 I had never thought about the reasons why someone might have an abortion, and didn’t know that some of my nearest and dearest would have abortions in the coming years. When I thought of abortion, I thought only of the fetus, never the pregnant person. That’s the way the discourse around abortion had always been shaped in Ireland, and for the most part, still is.
Seven years later and I am a loud-and-proud abortion rights activist. I am working as an intern with IPPF and the UK Family Planning Association on projects tackling abortion stigma in the UK and internationally. I volunteer for an organisation called Abortion Support Network which provides practical information and financial assistance to women in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man who have to travel to Britain to access safe abortion services. I am a medical student and aspiring future abortion provider. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what has happened in the intervening years to inspire such a huge change.
When I was 16, I didn’t know that approximately 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetime. I didn’t know that restricting access to legal abortion does not reduce the number of abortions, but increases the number of unsafe abortions, which can lead to morbidity and death. I didn’t know that the women who have abortions are often the same women we see on the labour ward. I didn’t know that there was a strong moral argument to be made in favour of safeguarding women’s right to safe abortion. At 23, I know all of these things and more.
Having the choice about your pregnancy removed from you can have devastating consequences for women, their lives and their families. Abortion Support Network has heard from clients in incredibly difficult circumstances who have resorted to heart-breaking actions before learning that we could provide them with financial help. Abortion has always and will always exist; it is pregnant women who are best placed to make decisions about their pregnancies according to their own values and circumstances. They will continue to make these decisions regardless of what barriers the state or society puts in their way, and we must protect their right to make these decisions and endeavour to make abortion safe and accessible.
These days I am still ‘pro-life’- I am pro women’s lives.
Photo credit: Sam Boal