When told about our upcoming classroom session over women’s rights and abortion, I anticipated a powerful conversation about sexism, religion, politics, and most importantly, triumph. To my surprise I got a lot of the first three and almost none of the last. Our guest speaker, Claire Pierson, is an activist and dedicatee to the abortion conflict in Northern Ireland, and initially revealed some disturbing facts about the women who live here: 1.) Women in Northern Ireland are prescribed more antidepressants than any other country in the UK, 2.) Women in Northern Ireland suffer from domestic abuse at a disproportionately higher rate than other women in the UK, 3.) Northern Ireland leads the UK in stillbirths.
Considering the long, violent history of militaristic conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, one that actively excluded women, it wasn’t a surprise to hear that the city’s men had inherited violent relationships with women behind closed doors nor was it surprising to hear that many of these women turned to pharmaceuticals as a cry out for help. The interesting fact was the one involving stillbirths, which our speaker explained could have a lot to do with the fact that abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, and the lack of accessible abortions: This means more births that have room for complications. And from there the facts only got more discouraging.
Our speaker introduced us to a blur of facts and figures about the corruption of the Members of Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) and their invincibility to effortlessly refute public opinion that supports a woman’s right to choose and the religiously charged doctors who are reinforce this by prioritizing their faith over their medical skill. She elaborated on the tireless journeys women travel for abortion access, the average cost of 1,000 to 3,000 pounds (1,333 to 3,998 USD) separate from travel expenses, and the degrading acts of reconciliation they’re forced to engage in afterwards such as carrying fetal remains in suitcases and asking the airlines for permission, at worst. Just when you thought it was all over, blasphemy re-reared its ugly head.
Because abortion is illegal, the pill is as well. Alas! The horror stories about women being reported to the police by friends & family, and consequently tried in court was the icing on the cake. While the abortion pill is considered a criminal offense, it was a relief to hear that there are a group of, what our speaker considered “radical,” women who smuggle the pill into the country for those who will never have the funds to make those voyages for their right to choose. But even then, Northern Ireland’s customs has began to crack down on the shipping of the pill and have efficiently started to confiscate it before it gets into their hands.
In an effort to revive the dimmed excitement that once was our lively class, the speaker educated us on two activist organizations, Marie Stopes and Womenonweb.org, that are working with the law in attempt to push for policy change and provide resources for women in desperate need. As much as I wanted to be excited about that small sparkle of hope in a big sea of darkness that is reality for these women, I could not.
The argument about the right to life is not a controversial one. It is a matter of policing women’s bodies through religiously charged beliefs that hold a demeaning assumption that a woman’s rational, conscientious choice to make a life changing decision is not valid. I left the conference room feeling incendiary and nihilistic about the women’s rights movement here in Northern Ireland, and not simply because of their situation but because of the alleged “activists” working diligently to “work with the law to create policy change.” Desperate times call for desperate measures and working with oppressive legislation is pointless in a country where corruption has been accepted. Famous poet and author, Audre Lorde, put it the best way I know how:
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.