first person

My Childhood Under Northern Ireland’s Abortion Ban

Where do its consequences begin and end?

Photo: A. Abbas/Magnum Photos
Photo: A. Abbas/Magnum Photos

There is a leaflet I remember reading compulsively when I was in primary school. I would have been 8 or 9 years old and got it from one of the booths set up by anti-choice protesters who would often gather in town. The text was neon pink and printed on silky black paper, design choices that made the content seem sensational, even pornographic. Across one corner there was an image of a tiny human body blurred by a glowing outline. The religious imagery I grew up with was full of saints portrayed similarly.

That leaflet lived in my pocket for a while. I unfolded and refolded it until the shininess faded and it was quartered with thick, white veins. I only vaguely remember what it said, the usual gory myths about infertility and vacuums and the capacity a fetus has to feel pain, always using the word baby instead of fetus. The feelings it evoked I recall much more clearly: revulsion, shock, and fascination.

That was in Belfast around 2001. You could not get an abortion and the entire concept was taboo, shrouded in secrecy and misinformation. Until 2019 — thanks mainly to the Democratic Unionist Party, which used the issue to appeal to its fundamentalist Presbyterian base — it was a criminal offense to have or perform an abortion in Northern Ireland unless the pregnancy was deemed to be life-threatening or to pose a risk of permanent damage to mental or physical health. I never knew of anyone who met that criteria. There were no exemptions for sexual crimes or fatal fetal abnormalities. The best you could do was order pills from the internet, which you could be prosecuted for, or travel to England. You had to pay for an abortion in England even though this procedure was free for English people on the NHS and we paid the same taxes as they did toward funding it.

The unfairness of that particular element — paying taxes toward health care that you are barred from — only struck me in my early 20s. Why only then? In theory, I have been pro-choice, just like my parents, for as long as I can remember. But growing up immersed in a culture with an abortion ban influences how you feel, if not how you think.

I could tell an uncomplicatedly sympathetic story about living as a teenage girl in a place where abortion was banned. One in which I lived in constant terror of getting pregnant, seething over the injustices of the patriarchy and taking plucky, practical measures to subvert it. A story where I had pocket money stowed fastidiously under a mattress and a sophisticated understanding of gender and power. But to do so would not only misrepresent my experience of the ban but also downplay its power and influence, stretching like a horizon over so many actions, words and thoughts. It’s difficult to say exactly where its consequences end.

I didn’t make resourceful contingency plans. Instead, I remember taking an ostrich-like approach to the possibility of getting pregnant. I tried to think about it as little as possible. This translated to being squeamish about anything to do with female reproductive health, never getting STI tests, and using daft, counterproductive contraception methods that were rumored to work doubly well. Wearing a condom and then also pulling out, for one. Or avoiding penetrative sex, which almost always meant performing acts oriented around male pleasure.

This didn’t feel oppressive or terrifying, it was just life; a restrictive culture doesn’t tend to appear as such except in a wider context. But I do remember being terrified of abortion itself. I thought of it as grizzly and maiming — something dangerous and illicit rather than a medical procedure. Another protester’s booth I recall vividly had a selection of buckets that they claimed were used during abortions “for the babies.” This fire-and-brimstone theatricality was a common tactic of anti-choice protests — or maybe celebrations is a better word since the objective of the protest was already a reality.

It was ridiculous but effective. When I had an abortion a few years ago (a decision I made because I didn’t want a child, which I have rarely thought about since), I felt no emotional or moral reservations. I still fainted, twice, while the nurse was trying to talk me through the procedure at the memory of those graphic leaflets. Afterward, I was livid that the climate of my childhood could have that physical effect on me years later.

Abortion was made needlessly traumatic, even for women who could get around the ban. Someone I knew of, who flew to Manchester for an abortion, had to return home hours later, bleeding profusely on the plane and then at work the next day. She told me she was so terrified of being reported to the police she didn’t tell her husband or any friends, let alone her boss or co-workers. Instead, she worked through the bleeding in a state of dread, praying that it wasn’t suggestive of a complication, for almost two weeks with no medical attention. When it stopped, she had to hope for the best.

There are more diffuse societal impacts, too. Things that I can’t say for sure were about the abortion ban but that I think in hindsight probably would have been different if there hadn’t been one. The embarrassment around sex, the culture of large families with enormous child-care responsibilities for the woman only, the behavior I now understand as virulent misogyny.

When I was at school, being a girl was akin to a form of punishment. The whole concept of sex and sexuality was shrouded in shame. The sex education we had was administered by Presbyterian groups who would come in and talk to an entire grade at once about the evils of sex before marriage while everyone giggled and blushed. Of course, they didn’t talk about queer relationships. They didn’t talk about STIs or contraception, either. Girls I knew who talked about being on contraception mostly said it was for their skin. When I went on the pill at 16, the doctor gave me a talk about appropriate behavior and respectability.

I can remember feeling like some of the boys at my school really hated girls. Although I doubt I articulated it to myself as clearly as that at the time; it can be difficult to separate memories from the reflections you impose on them in hindsight. But I did have a gut instinct to avoid certain boys. I know I thought of some of them as scary. The boys everyone would hear stories about. When a girl would pass out drunk at a party, those boys would take her clothes off and take pictures of her. Or take turns sexually assaulting her, although we wouldn’t have called it that. The point of these stories, as we usually saw them at the time, was that the girl involved had embarrassed herself.

Sometimes we would agree it was bad, and when we gossiped about it, we would say we felt sorry for her. I remember one story, about a boy in the year above me who would always feature in these kinds of stories and was in a secret relationship with a girl who was about 13. He was 17 or 18. (I don’t know who this relationship was a secret from; I barely knew him and I knew about it.) The way I heard it, her parents were away and she had people over to her house for drinks, including this boy and some of his friends. She passed out drunk, and he took all her clothes off and tied her up in Christmas tree lights, turned them on, and took pictures of her. Then he left, leaving the lights on. When she woke up in the morning, her body was covered in tiny burns and she had to go to the hospital.

Recently, I saw an old school friend of mine, Jake. We laughed about a party we had gone to when we were around 16, hosted by a boy in our school whose dad owned some pizza restaurants. Their family lived in a big house outside of Belfast surrounded by fields and patches of forest. They had a decked-out barn with bar stools and a mini-fridge. There was a bonfire and they had hired porta-potties. We told the story of that party to each other the way you retell well-worn stories with old friends, asking the other person if they remember details you know they will. Remember when that boy passed out in the porta-potty? Remember you tried to smoke weed but you could never inhale, right? Remember I drove you home?

During our conversation, I recalled something from that night I hadn’t thought about in a long time. I was standing by the bonfire, flirting with this boy I’d fancied for a while, and he grabbed my bag and ran off into the forest with it. He wasn’t one of the boys who tended to feature in those bad stories, although a lot of his friends did. I ran after him and found him hiding behind a tree, where we wrestled for the bag. We ended up on the ground, him sitting on top of me with one leg on either side of my torso. He grabbed my wrists, held them down by my sides, and laughed. I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I laughed too.

He asked about my boyfriend, if it was true he was at the university in our city. I said he was. He looked down at me, raised his eyebrows, and then climbed off me slowly and we stood up. There was soil and leaves in my hair. I didn’t bring that anecdote up to Jake, but I thought about it in the taxi home, trying to figure out, years later, what was going on there — if it was dangerous or a game.

For the rest of that taxi journey, I found myself replaying similar memories. I can never think of a single experience of misogyny without a whole chain of linked events unfolding before me. The time while traveling I snuck onto the private beach of a luxury hotel with a man staying in my hostel and ended up pinned on the floor like that again, wondering if he was joking or not. The time a man in a bar in Manchester came up behind me, separated my bum cheeks with his hands, pressed his crotch between them, and then spent the rest of the night badgering me while his friends watched and laughed. The time I was walking home and a car parked a little bit ahead of me so I hid in a stranger’s garden, lying under a bush, while the man who had been in the car walked up and down the street looking for me. Times in nightclubs in London when I haven’t wanted to talk to someone so he has shouted abuse at me or grabbed me. Being flashed on public transport — a gesture that seems, comparatively, so unthreatening I tend to joke about it with friends after. The chain unfolds and unfolds.

I look back on these events with detachment, trying to decide if a certain situation was dangerous, how dangerous it was, or how it started or ended up a certain way. Sometimes I think these are situations that, in hindsight, were bound to have taken a threatening turn and I must be the only person on earth who wouldn’t have been able to see that (internalized misogyny, I know). Mostly I feel angry at the sense of constantly playing a rigged game.

Just as there is a palatable way to talk about abortion, there is a palatable way to talk about gendered violence and misogyny, using the language of trauma as it is signposted in movies. But real life is full of different kinds of people with different coping mechanisms. Misogyny is not only male violence but also a simplistic stereotype of female behavior and emotions projected uniformly onto all of us. It is good-victim narratives and treating women with kindness and sympathy only if we cry and pretending that we only have abortions because we can’t afford children.

Trying to get out from under this is the project of a lifetime. Determining how you feel about the prospect of motherhood versus how you have been told to feel. Accepting that you have been a victim even though you don’t behave the way they’re supposed to. Reckoning with the times you have participated in misogyny instead of just being subjected to it. Wondering how much of the misogyny I remember from growing up was because of the abortion ban and how much was just the normal amount. Asking the impossible question: What level of hatred and violence toward women is normal?

My Childhood Under Northern Ireland’s Abortion Ban