Having spent the majority of the first 24 years of my life in my hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and most of the last decade living in the United States, I often find myself comparing the things that are the same in each place and the things that are different. I’m always especially struck by what our respective populations take for granted. In the US, gas will be cheap but health care will be expensive. In Northern Ireland, it’s the other way around. Another thing we take for granted in Northern Ireland is that abortions—like Premier League football matches and, once upon a time, a trip to IKEA—are things you cross the Irish Sea for.
The Abortion Act 1967, an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, legalised abortions in England, Scotland and Wales by registered practitioners, and regulated the provision of procedures through the taxpayer-funded National Health Service. The act did not extend to Northern Ireland, where the applicable legislation falls under two criminal laws: the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945. Seeing how these laws are enforced today can be jarring. In 2016, a young Northern Irish woman was given a suspended criminal sentence for buying abortion pills on the internet and inducing the miscarriage of her unwanted pregnancy. Aged 19 at the time, she couldn’t afford the trip to England to have the procedure performed legally.
I’ve lived in the US for the last two presidential elections and experienced first-hand how access to abortion services is employed as a reliable base-mobilizer in political discourse. Not so in Northern Ireland—and not because as a country we have wisely decided that a woman’s bodily autonomy is not acceptable political fodder, rather, there just doesn’t seem to be the will to change things. Northern Ireland is perhaps best known on the world’s stage for its religious and political divisions, yet the majority of its parties, Protestant and Catholic alike, see eye to eye on reproductive rights. Only one of its main political parties, the Greens, supports decriminalisation of abortion.
Reflective of its history, the majority of Northern Ireland’s public education system is segregated along religious lines. I attended a Catholic high school, where religion was a mandatory subject for five of the seven years spent there. We were taught that a human life begins at conception and abortion is, therefore, unequivocally murder. I’m sure I parroted as much in exams so that I would get a good grade—we hadn’t learned the talking points to disagree anyway. Despite leaving school a confirmed atheist, feelings of guilt and shame around the subject lingered.
I remember a few years ago one of my best friends, a native Californian, disclosed to me quite matter-of-factly that she’d recently had an abortion. I was shocked; not at what she had done, just at the fact that we were talking about it, or, rather, she was talking about it—I had nothing to contribute. I felt like a child, nodding and laughing along with a joke I didn’t understand. I’ve come a long way since. When visiting home, I often find myself the recipient of an awkward smile and silent nod after speaking candidly on a subject no one expected to hear about.
While it’s hard to feel completely free of deeply internalized stigmas, talking about reproductive rights is fairly normal for me now. In an ideal world that would be the case for everyone. The problem in Northern Ireland, as I see it, is finding a way to converse about an issue that doesn’t get a seat at the table in official party political discourse. How do we breathe life into an ancient problem that has been debated to death as a matter of religion and morality? How do we make it shiny and new again?
One approach is bypassing political and religious discourse altogether. An example of this in action is La Batarde, a Belfast-based collective that I am proud to be a part of. We sell clothing and merchandise to raise money for the Abortion Support Network (ASN), which exists to help women manage the practicalities of getting to the mainland to end a pregnancy. With streetwear-inspired designs that invoke the spirit of radical feminist imagery, La Batarde creates clothing that celebrates women and puts them back in the foreground of the issue. Furthermore, the donation of all profits to ASN is a reminder of the Irish abortions that happen everyday, at great personal and financial cost to the women who are forced to travel for them.
In the Republic of Ireland, under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, a fetus has the same right to life as the woman carrying it—a right that can only be repealed by a nationwide referendum. The Repeal Project has had tremendous and widespread success in getting its message into the public consciousness. Black sweatshirts with the stark message “Repeal” printed in white allow wearers to make a strong statement of solidarity without having to breathe a word. Initially aiming to sell 100 hundred sweatshirts, within a week sweatshirt orders were amounting to 60 a day. The efforts of the Repeal Project and other Irish pro choice groups have been so effective that the Irish government has stated its intention to facilitate the holding of a referendum on abortion in 2018.
From literature to advertising, “Show, don’t tell” is one of the golden rules of effective communication. Taken literally, it also serves those who would like to make a statement but have not yet found their voices—a feeling I used to know well. We will keep pushing the conversation in Northern Ireland, and I look forward to the day that access to free, safe and legal abortion is something we take for granted.