There are few more taboo subjects in Ireland, north and south, than
abortion. Women have travelled to England for abortions since it became legal
there; however until recently few admitted to supporting the right to abortion,
still less to having had one. When, in 1981, the late campaigning journalist
Mary Holland suggested that Irish women who had had abortions should sign an
open letter similar to the 1971 Manifesto of the 343 in which French women
admitted to having had illegal abortions, her suggestion was met with stony
Incredibly, even today, information about abortion is still censored in the Republic of Ireland under the Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995. The dreadful aspect of this censorship is its devastating impact on those women who need abortions for medical reasons, such as foetal abnormality, even fatal foetal abnormalities. Their doctors are not allowed to organise the termination for them in an English hospital, rather they have to make arrangements themselves.
Things are changing however, and the taboo around abortion is starting to be broken. In 2012, just days after news broke of the death of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist who was refused an emergency medical termination, more than 25,000 people took to the streets of Dublin to demand the right to legal abortion.
In the aftermath of the Equal Marriage Referendum in Ireland, several well-known women have written and spoken about their experiences of abortion. Roisin Ingle of the Irish Times and comedian and actor Tara Flynn have both published defiant public testimonies about their own abortions.Many ordinary women have started to break their silence too.
The taboo is being broken also in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK to which the 1967 Abortion Act (allowing legal abortions) was never extended. In March 2013 more than 100 women signed an open letter admitting that they had either taken medication to cause an illegal abortion or they had aided and abetted another woman to do so. Several of the letter’s signatories appeared on television and radio to talk about their experience, but none of the women were questioned by the police, still less charged.
Despite this, in June 2015, a Belfast mother was charged with procuring pills to help her underage daughter end a pregnancy. Within a few days, more than 230 women, and some men, had signed a new open letter admitting to the same “crime” as the woman on trial—getting abortion pills over the internet to help someone who needed an abortion. Again, none of these people have been questioned by police, despite also having spoken on television and radio.
Other groups of activists have adopted an even more subversive approach. The group Speaking of Imelda (standing for Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion) has sent knickers to Irish politicians, including to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, to make the case for legal abortion. While women from the Republic of Ireland have recently joined their Northern Irish sisters, tweeting intimate details of their menstruation to politicians who, they say, have demonstrated a profound and intrusive interest in what happens in their uteruses.
This article was first published in Index on Censorship magazine. Index on Censorship is a global quarterly magazine, covering free expression issues around the world. It was first published in 1972 and set up by the poet Stephen Spender. Buy a subscription at: exacteditions.com/indexoncensorship.