Why we need to hear about pressure in the abortion debate


Do families in Ireland experience pressure when they are faced with an unplanned pregnancy, or one which involves a difficult or challenging diagnosis?

The answer is yes. We all know that. Pressure is a feature of every tough family situation and a challenging pregnancy is no different.

It’s hard to understand then, why there is such resistance to the possibility of discussing what form this pressure takes, or how best to deal with it. Mention it in a discussion and you’re more likely to be told that “these families” need to go to the Gardai. Too often, their experience is reduced to the level of “anecdote”, yet we don’t do that in the case of families who sought an abortion. Nor should we. After all, what’s wrong with a calm discussion where families are made to feel welcome, regardless of their circumstances? In case you were under any illusions, that’s not what’s happening in this country at present. More and more, it seems that those who constantly preach the need for “calm, rational debate” are the ones least prepared to actually live up to that and listen to the facts that might be difficult for them to hear but are things that need to be aired in the interest of debate.

Despite what we tell ourselves, that’s just not how we do things when it comes to abortion. We might like to call it a “debate” but we all know we’re just fooling ourselves. Here are just two examples:

– Abortion campaigners are fond of talking about the “alphabet” of cases – how many letters will they have to go through before they get their referendum etc. But the truth is they don’t have to go very far through the alphabet before they come to Ms C. Held up as a reason for Ireland to liberalise its abortion laws when she was taken abroad for an abortion as a teenager in 1997, she was quietly dropped from their campaign when she returned to the public arena albeit briefly to talk about how she was so traumatised by her abortion that she attempted suicide. There was no platform offered to her as a woman who could talk about how abortion had a negative effect on her life and the public missed out on hearing a valuable testimony as a result.

– Women who regret their abortions aren’t given any hearing in general. Witness the experience of abortion recovery group Women Hurt who set up their group in 2011 in an attempt to reach out to other women suffering in the aftermath of abortion. The then-Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland criticised their efforts. In general, there is an overwhelming eagerness to downplay the feelings of regret and sadness that many woman experience after abortion. And it’s understandable – abortion advocates don’t want to address it so they simply pretend these women don’t exist.

There’s nothing easy about coming forward and telling your story of abortion regret, or speaking about how you felt pressured to consider an abortion when told that your baby wouldn’t survive. Pressure comes in all shapes and sizes. It can come from friends or family members. It can be subtle or overt. It can range from mild through insensitive all the way to the stage where complaints need to be made.

The bottom line is that any woman, any family experiencing trauma or feeling like they have been pressured should feel free to tell their story. They shouldn’t feel like they’re going to receive abuse or be quietly ignored because they’re on the “wrong side” of the debate. They shouldn’t feel that kind of fear and they should be able to come out and tell their story in their own time, confident that they’ll be listened to with calmness and compassion.

Some people have bravely spoken about their own feelings of pressure – how they were made to feel like a “foolish mum” when they wanted to continue with their pregnancy, how they were encouraged to “consider other options”. What should we call these types of comments, if not pressure? If a mother who is trying to come to terms with a new reality that affects her unborn baby describes it as “pressure”, who are we to tell her otherwise? Doesn’t it say a lot about some prochoice campaigners that they show such reluctance to discuss the existence of this pressure in a calm way?

Unfortunately, in the maelstrom of media debates on this issue, one message makes its way through all too often and it’s a message that the only testimony welcome is one that says there is nothing negative about abortion, that it’s a choice with no bad side-effects, equal to all others. This is a falsehood for so many reasons from the fact that abortion ends a human life all the way to the sadness and grief that women suffer in its aftermath. The public has a right to hear every story, not just the ones deemed suitable by people who have no right to make that distinction.

After all, for all the high-profile cases you can think of, there was a day when the woman or family at the centre felt the need to talk to someone and they took a chance that their feelings wouldn’t be dispelled as irrelevant or not serious enough to form part of a radio discussion. My hope is that someday, regardless of where we decide our laws should be, all woman and families will be treated with the manners, respect and courtesy that they deserve.