In last Friday’s Irish Examiner we were offered a thoughtful article about abortion stigma and how women still don’t talk about abortion in Ireland. And while Alison O’Connor makes a vitally important observation – that high levels of stigma that continue to exist, using a clear case in her own life and poll taking with other women to validate that women do not talk about abortion, I’m not sure this article says what she intended it to. The phenomena she is describing sounds like a problem not just of women themselves not feeling comfortable sharing, but a problem of others, all of *us*, not being public and out as being pro-choice and non-judgmental enough to hear those stories.
What would you do?
If you think you might be judged by a friend or relative whom you care for and need as support who isn’t clear about their position on abortion, why would you risk that relationship and support?
And before we start talking about women needing to be brave and just go for it, let’s inquire about the ways this stigma may have been working through us in little judgments as friends, providers, sisters, partners, media:
What if you see that the only stories that make the news, when not quoting government obfuscation or virulently anti-woman perversions of modern religion, are sad, sad women who are hurting from the specific tragedy that brought them to need an abortion? And what if your crisis was that you just didn’t want to have a child? Would you think your story is wanted?
What if your sister thinks abortion makes sense in cases of rape but nothing else, and you worry what happened to you wasn’t enough like the ‘legitimate’ sort of rape defined by misinformed and uncaring politicians? Would you risk your sister’s judgment, or the possibility you might have to justify it, to tell her?
What if your friend who is trying to get pregnant or didn’t have kids complains in passing about all the young girls throwing away what she’d give anything to have? Would you want to upset your friend and potentially lose that relationship?
What if you’re looking for some support or a service to get an abortion, but all you hear is stories from providers is how desperate and sad abortion seekers are? Why would you want to step into the role of victim or be made to feel more desperate than you are just to speak up, just to get the care you want?
What can you do?
Some readers may have experience with the above, have had to find real answers to these rhetorical questions. But the most crucial and not rhetorical question, for those who haven’t had to face down the silence and the stigmatised experiences, would be to stop and ask really what incentive do we personally give people to share their abortion experiences? When the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland demands “balance” which means personal experience will always be shouted down, when RTE backs down when challenged by the same anti-choice, anti-gay groups, when the world only wants to debate pros and cons, how are *you* indicating you don’t want to do that. That you can listen now matter what the story is. Articles like Merritt Tierce’s in the New York Times states it so brilliantly: “It’s our job to say it’s O.K. if that’s the end of the story. It’s O.K. if it’s boring or not traumatic or if you don’t even know what it was.”
We all set the terms of our relationships in direct ways (like the travel guides to Ireland that say “don’t talk about the Troubles or abortion”). Most of us probably don’t directly dissuade people from speaking about something which we already barely have the language for. But we also set terms in indirect ways, small gestures and attitudes, and it is those intentional moments that can create environments and relationships that allow for sharing.
It wasn’t until I started talking about my own body, sexual health and reproductive choices, and the challenges I’ve had that women (and men) came out of the woodwork with their stories and concerns. This silence is all of *our* problems: women who have travelled from Ireland or broken the law have already shown a tremendous amount of bravery and self-care; it shouldn’t be only on their individual heads to be the brave ones again and make us all listen. We, as a culture and a people, need to make ourselves clearly non-judgmental, pro-choice and, maybe, a little vulnerable if we expect people who have had abortions to step out into the roaring, finger pointing debate to “fess up” to something that culture, government, and the media clearly still treats as an anomaly or mistake. Make the space for these stories, and they will come.
And you can participate in creating that open space to speak at this year’s March afterparty with creative workshops and Speak Out event on the 27th of September at Filmbase.
Katie Gillum is a co-convenor of the Abortion Rights Campaign and producer who tweets as @slowtext