It was through coincidence I ended up being in Belfast the day Northern Ireland finally legalised same sex marriage and abortion. As a Scot living in London looking for a cheap way to visit home at the last minute, I discovered that flying to Belfast and then getting a ferry over the sea worked out as my most economically viable option. I considered it a fun opportunity to explore a largely forgotten about part of the United Kingdom.
The whole atmosphere of Belfast was defined by the news of the passed laws. It was being reported on every TV I was in earshot of and, predictably, there were preachers on the street corner shouting about the end of days. The panic in their voices was real: this really was the end of the world to them. From a distance, I observed the scene with mild discomfort.
It was around mid-afternoon I realised that although all I had heard about during the day was the debate of whether abortion is ethical or not, I was yet to see anyone who had ever had an abortion themselves vocalise their personal experience. At 7pm on my taxi ride to the port I contributed to this trend. When the cabby asked me what I thought of the news my answer proved generic. I chose not to mention that two years previously I myself had had an abortion.
I was 22, and in hindsight it was unequivocally, undoubtedly, and indisputably the right decision for me. I know that now. However, it was an lonely time because whilst I was wise on the literature that one in three women will terminate a pregnancy in their lifetime, and that one in five of pregnancies end in abortion, I had never (and still have not) ever, had a conversation with a person about their abortion. That’s madness. And it made me feel like I had gone through something dirty. I never got to talk to anyone about the stress of the experience or my reflections in the aftermath. It took me a long time to be able to understand whether I had made the right decision and that’s largely because you need to engage in dialogue to be able to reach thoughtful conclusions. An already stressful time was turned into a deep source of shame for me.
For context, I’m not a particularly reserved person. Anyone who wants to engage in conversation with me about my history of mental illness is welcome to, and with regards to my fraternizations with the same sex, I can’t think of one of my friends who isn’t aware of that aspect of my life. But of all the sober, tipsy, and drunken conversations I have engaged in with people over the past two years, not one of those people has told me, even in the briefest of passings, that they have had an abortion.
It is perfectly possible that I have just had odd luck. I suppose I should also be receptive to the possibility that there is something about me that means people are not inspired to open up. These are possibilities, but the media representation in Belfast of the law passing made me inclined to believe that the truth is that very few women who have had an abortion ever talk about it again. It is not a topic of conversation that is welcomed. We need to start acknowledging as a society that that’s not healthy.
If Northern Ireland should learn anything from the rest of the UK, it is that legalising abortion is only the first in a two-part step in truly making women believe the governments sentiments “your body, your choice”. Where Britain failed women was in its inability to recognise that there needs to be spaces available in the public discourse for these experiences to be shared. Everyone wins from this: it educates the general public; it allows women to understand their experience doesn’t make them a social freak and it is even in the interest of pro-lifers. There’s a correlation between how open society is about sex and how likely that society is to engage in safe sex.
As time passes my experience from age 22 becomes a footnote in my life and I am glad I can genuinely say I have moved on from the stress of the experience. But it wasn’t an inevitability, it could have been a lot easier. Meaningful conversations save people’s mental health, and whilst society values prudishness over honesty, a lot of women will continue to suffer in silence.