I recently travelled to the UK for a surgical abortion.
So I’m one of the numbers. Once I talked the Repeal the 8th talk. Now I’ve walked the walk.
And now, I also feel like I have found my voice. Only it’s not a voice, it’s a fire-laden, rage-filled, fury-driven, tear-laden roar. ‘Fuck you, Ireland,’shouted from a height. 22,000 feet, so the pilot said. I feel compelled to write; to document; to detail; to share. For me, for the five other Irish women in the clinic that day. For my daughters. I cannot let my experience go unnoticed, undocumented.
It is a very strange feeling for the political to suddenly become so intensely and intimately personal. My decision was personal, rapid and very certain. The certainty of my decision was the only easy thing. To be uncertain, to wrestle back and forth with the decision must add another unbearable weight to a woman.
What made my experience traumatic and distressing was everything else related to my decision. I knew that I would not have my husband there to support me. I knew that I would be unable to choose to take the abortion pill as to do so would have necessitated either an overnight stay, or travelling back, potentially in great pain and bleeding. I knew that I would have to undertake a gruelling day, with travel, waiting time, numerous consultations and a surgical procedure – all on my own. Alone. Very fucking alone.
I had to choose the surgical termination option, with all that that entailed; general anaesthetic and needles. Over the three days between booking the procedure and actually travelling, it is no understatement to say that I was traumatised and in the depths of the most desolate despair I have ever experienced. Thoughts of suicide passed through. None of this was about the decision, but at the abject isolation, stigma, shame, and distress that I was forced to feel in being made to leave my husband, my bed and my country behind to do something that I knew was right for me. I have never in my life felt loneliness or crushing, mind-altering anguish like that. Or anger.
Over those three days, I cried endlessly, great big racking, shake-you-to-your-core sobs. When I wasn’t crying, I was detached, zombie-like, hardly believing that this was happening to me – that I was joining the ranks of women who had travelled to the UK.
I had to go and buy some things – my ‘abortion shopping list’, I called it; a grim sense of humour seemed necessary. A dressing gown, slippers, sanitary pads, a small case with wheels as I knew that I couldn’t carry any weight after the procedure. There is little more unbearably surreal than the woman behind the counter of the luggage shop coming to help me to find a cheap and hand-luggage friendly wheelie case and asking cheerfully, ‘Going anywhere nice?’ The dark side of me wanted to say ‘Ah, you know yourself – just going to Manchester for an abortion’, to shock her, to provoke a reaction, but in reality all I was able to muster was, ‘Not really.’
The morning of Tuesday brought some sense of relief, relief that the waiting was over, that this was the day. I rose at 4.45am, having been awake for most of the night, afraid that I might miss the flight and feeling lonely, so lonely. I parked the car as close to the terminal as I could, not sure of the state in which I would be returning to it and wanting to limit the time spent walking.
Making my way through the snaking security line at the airport, I scanned the faces that were ahead of me, wondering which of the women was helping me to make up the numbers that day. I picked one out from the crowd and was strangely pleased when I saw her at the clinic later – my ‘which-woman-is-travelling-for-an-abortion?’ radar was, apparently, bang-on.
At the other end, I called the clinic to let them know I had landed. They provide a taxi to and from the airport for the Irish women they care for. They also charge reduced rates to take into account our added travel and accommodation expenses. They do their best to make things easier for us.
There were six of us there from Ireland that day. One day, one clinic. Six women. At one point, there were three of us waiting for theatre and they arranged us according to our flight times, in order that they would do their best to provide us with as much recovery time as possible. Notes were compared between us on the flights we had booked. One woman chastised herself, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking, booking the 6.10 flight…’ We shared knowing half-smiles at the advice given to us by the nurses that our insurance would not cover us to drive after the general anaesthetic, knowing that we had no choice. Some of the women would be making three or four hour journeys home from the airport that night.
I have never experienced kindness and compassion like that which was extended to me by everyone there; from the administration assistant and the nursing staff, to the elderly anesthetist who placed his hand so supportively on my arm, with a look that was so perfectly soothing, calming and reassuring.
There was one particular nurse whose care and compassion will forever stay with me. Who knows what I had expected – hushed tones, lack of eye contact, a funereal shame-filled atmosphere? I found none of the above. The warmth of the staff, the chats between the women, the sense of normalcy and kindness were all unexpected, but after the loneliness and trauma of the preceding days, were appreciated more than I will ever be able to express.
There was nothing but love, support and compassion for all of the women there. The squeeze and soothing words of ‘It’s not right that you should have to come all this way. You poor thing, you must be exhausted.’ The hand offered by a nurse when I asked for it; the hand offered by a nurse when I didn’t. The heartfelt embrace offered by the same nurse as I tried to find the words to thank her as I left. She will never ever know the difference she made to me that day. No shame. No shaming.
And then, after all that care, love and compassion from the British healthcare system, came the ultimate slap-in-the-face, the ultimate Irish ‘fuck you’. The staff nurse who came to discharge me gave me the clinic’s own abortion aftercare leaflet, along with a small leaflet offering abortion aftercare in Ireland; produced by the Health Service Executive (in conjunction with some other state bodies). It offered ‘confidential, non-judgemental’ support after an abortion.
Throughout the whole process, the number of days preceding my travel, one of the more pressing emotions I had been feeling was a bubbling, seething sense of anger. Rage that my country would rather I proceeded with a pregnancy I did not want and could not cope with (for many reasons) than have the choice to make a decision about my reproductive life that was best for me and for my family.
On presentation with this leaflet, I felt that rage rise up in an explosion of angry disbelief. I was absolutely incensed – they send us away to ‘sort ourselves out’ in Britain, lost in the shame, stigma, isolation and financial hardship that that brings and then have the fucking audacity to send these leaflets over for the wonderful British nurses to give to us. ‘Are they for real?’ I asked the nurse. She shook her head and patted my arm, saying ‘I know, I know.’
And now? Now, I repeat the number 3-4-5-1 compulsively to myself, trying to imagine how many women that looks like. I scan the women at work, wondering – anyone else? I scan the women at a shopping centre, wondering – did she have an abortion too? Her? Or her? The sense of isolation in the silence is really hard to bear. I am not ashamed of my decision. It was absolutely the right one for me. I am shamed by the silence of our society, the knowledge that this is ‘That-Of-Which-We-Do-Not-Speak’.
My career is in an area that is populated (with some exceptions) by people who are conservative by nature, and in its wider form, influenced greatly by the power of the Church. I cannot speak out and in that, I feel like I am complicit in the silent shaming that goes on. My anger at my treatment by my country makes me want to shout about my experience; to share my outrage and experience in the hope that things can change, to make other women like me feel less lonely, less isolated, less stigmatised.
My knowledge of how our society works means that I know that that is a risk too far, for myself and for my family. I cannot speak out about my abortion. I cannot identify myself. To do so would unleash something which would change my life, my relationships and my future career prospects.
And so, I write this piece anonymously and tweet under an anonymous account. I read endless academic journal articles about women’s abortion experiences and its psychological effects. I take comfort in the facts, the semantic explorations, the historical perspectives, the statistics. They all validate my lived experience.
I imagine myself approaching women wearing their ‘REPEAL’ sweaters; ‘Nice jumper. I had an abortion recently. You?’ I have imaginary, expletive and anger-laden discussions with the Minister for Health; with our new Taoiseach.
Usually, as a passenger on a plane on its approach to Dublin Airport, I gaze at the views over Dublin Bay and the city’s coastline open up and feel the familiar little pulse of love for the beauty of our country and my city.
On my return flight from Manchester, that feeling was completely absent. I said my silent thank-yous of appreciation to England as the wheels left the tarmac in the UK and as we touched down in Dublin, I felt the weight of anger, rage, silence and stigma begin to bear down on my shoulders.
Fuck you, Ireland. Fuck you, 8th amendment. This must stop.