Opinion | What Irish Women Know
By Maeve Higgins
Ms. Higgins grew up in Cobh, Ireland.
Alison and I became best friends at age 4 after our eyes locked during an intense game of Lego in preschool. We remained obsessed with each other in the important way girls are right up through our teens. She noticed all the same things I did, and we shared everything. It wasn’t My Little Pony; it was Our Little Pony. Well, it was actually a knockoff brand of plastic pony with a shedding glittery mane, but you get my drift. And speaking of drift, that was inevitably what we did throughout our 20s. I left the country and she stayed in our hometown and had her daughters, but still I would know the smell of her house and the sound of her laugh from miles away.
We grew up in Cobh, a harbor town in Ireland with a population of nearly 13,000 today, a pretty island with rows of colored houses crammed together in the shade of a huge gray cathedral. This spring I was back for two months, my longest stint in Ireland in five years. It was a business trip for me. Show business. Impressive, right? Rumor has it I’m Ireland’s answer to Meryl Streep. I started that rumor while I was there, in a comedy movie, playing a lonely driving instructor who can talk to ghosts. This spring has also been the season of the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional limit on abortion, which Irish people will vote on Friday. It’s a national conversation, and a few weeks ago, I sat in my parents’ kitchen to talk to Alison about it. I knew she’d had an abortion, but for the first time in more than 30 years of friendship, she told me something about herself that she hadn’t wanted to share before.
In January 2012, that nightmarish thing happened where she got an ultrasound at 19 weeks pregnant and her doctor went very quiet. Alison told me she spoke first: “I want you to tell me exactly what you see on the screen, I can take it.” The doctor explained that her baby had anencephaly, that the baby’s skull was not formed around its brain, and it would not form. “I knew straight away that that’s a zero chance of survival, and he said yes, I’m afraid so.” The man left the room to give Alison and her husband, Steve, time to talk. “He came back and said what do you think you’ll do? And I just said, ‘I’m going to England.’”
That was it. No one in Ireland could do anything more for her, because doing anything more is illegal. All you can do if you need an abortion is leave. Steve’s father, a tillage farmer, used to play rugby with an English doctor who’d spent time in Cobh 40 years ago, and they were still friendly. He phoned him, and that 75-year-old retired surgeon together with his retired gynecologist friend, organized Alison’s abortion in England. Last-minute flights cost the couple around $1,100, they took time out of work, and Alison’s mother looked after their 18-month-old daughter.
Alison and Steve stayed with the retired surgeon and his wife for three days, because that’s how long the whole procedure took. She remembers the kindness of the midwife, the generosity of the retired surgeon and his wife, the help of her family and friends. She also remembers an internal fury begin to smolder: “I’d been shipped off. I started feeling angry as I got off the plane and was driving in the middle of the night and going to this elderly couple’s house in England because they were affording us shelter in a time of need, where we couldn’t get it in our own country, in our own beds, at home.”
Later that year, Savita Halappanavar, 31, a dentist, died from septicemia in a Galway hospital after repeatedly requesting and being refused a termination of the fetus she was miscarrying. Her name became a rallying cry for many, and her parents recently called on people to vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment. In the months that followed her death, Irish women began to publicly speak about their own abortions. This new openness, to Alison, felt like a life vest thrown her way. She told anyone who would listen about what had happened to her in 2012.
She was, back then, less open about her first abortion. Alison was 22 when she found out she was pregnant and knew immediately she did not want to have a baby. She and her boyfriend were broke at the time, so she had to skip rent, skimp on food and borrow money from a friend to get the bus to Dublin and the ferry overnight to England. She was flooded with relief after the abortion. Until two weeks ago, she had never told me about any of that, and I asked her why.
She said the only people who knew were her boyfriend and the friend she borrowed money from. “I was afraid to tell anyone because I was afraid I’d be judged for it.” It was then my turn to be quiet, because while I hope I would not have judged her, I can’t say that for sure.
Around the same time we sat chatting, one of the local doctors was standing on the bridge into the town, holding up placards urging us to “Save the 8th,” and I remembered how he wouldn’t prescribe contraception to teenage girls because of his religious beliefs. Growing up in Ireland, even speaking about abortion was taboo. Far from a medical procedure, it was a secret and a shame. That is changing for many, including Alison. “Now I’m just free of caring what people think about me. It’s different for me now.”
It’s different for me now, too. In the movie I was home to shoot, another Cobh girl, Terri, played my sister. One evening, at the beginning of our third night-shoot, she called me into her trailer. She was ghastly pale as she explained she was seven weeks pregnant and bleeding. She was reluctant to tell the producer, as we had a big scene that night and there was a crew of 40 people waiting for us on set. Besides, she’d had a miscarriage six months earlier and wasn’t sure that this felt the same. We agreed to check in every half-hour, then she strapped on her fake bump — her character was nine months pregnant — and went to work.
By 1 a.m., Terri was on her way to a maternity hospital in Dublin. At 5 a.m., she left there having confirmed that she was miscarrying. Cramping badly, she was greeted by “No” campaign posters outside the hospital featuring blown-up images of embryos with the message: “I am 9 weeks old. I can yawn and kick. Don’t repeal me.” A week later she saw two fiftysomething men who, she said, “looked like someone’s dad,” sharing a laugh about something as they hammered the same poster onto a lamppost. Terri shouted at them on the street, a first for her.
She shouted that if they really wanted to “love both” — the No campaign’s slogan meaning to love both mother and baby — then they should tear down those same posters outside the maternity hospital. She started to cry as she walked away, because, she said, she was furious, and not just furious for herself. Terri’s miscarriages made her feel deeply for women who made the choice to terminate their pregnancies, women who’ve had to leave their country to do so.
That same rage Alison has been experiencing, that fury emanating from Terri, I have it now, too, but strangely it doesn’t feel new. It’s been there all along, I didn’t notice because it was just an ember, struggling to stay alight among ashes, unable to ignite fully without oxygen. There’s this feeling I get in Cobh, in Ireland, particularly among women, and I wish you could feel it, too, because it’s extraordinary. It’s something like electricity but really a more ancient source of power, like fire, and the thing about fire, of course, is that it’s catching.