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Cora Sherlock: Ireland has guilty secrets about abortion. But not the ones promoted by the ‘pro-choice’ BBC


Is abortion Ireland’s guilty secret?  The question was the topic of a documentary that aired this week on BBC 3. The answer is a resounding “Yes”.

Given the thrust and tone of presenter Alys Harte’s piece, it’s doubtful that she would expect a pro-life campaigner like me to give that answer, but nothing else will do.  Abortion is the guilty secret of Irish society, but not for the reasons put forward in the documentary.

The producers clearly had it in mind to deal comprehensively with the various reasons why women from Ireland seek abortions, presumably so that the argument in favour of liberalising Ireland’s laws further would be watertight.  Each woman interviewed spoke eloquently about her own situation, but the viewer was still only getting one side of the story.

Sadly, there are many families who receive the same diagnosis as Sarah, who aborted her first baby when she was diagnosed with a life-limiting condition, or fatal foetal abnormality.  In Ireland, there are even two support groups to help families who find themselves in this situation – One Day More and Every Life Counts.  A Bill is underway in the Irish House of Parliament to try and stop the use of that most hurtful phrase commonly used to describe these terminally ill unborn babies – “incompatible with life”.

Women from these groups are eager to share their experiences of continuing with their pregnancies, and, I would imagine, would have jumped at the chance to take part in this programme.  They could have talked about how they are contacted by families who have returned from Britain after having an abortion, only to discover that there are perinatal hospice facilities in Ireland which would have allowed them to give birth and spend whatever time they had with their baby.

These facilities are so poorly publicised by politicians and the media in Ireland that they are themselves practically a secret to the general public.  And, it seems, that secrecy suits the makers of this documentary just fine for there wasn’t a mention about how these facilities are based around helping families come to terms with, and then grieve for, their changed expectations.

I had the same, disjointed feeling when Suzanne told her story about how she ordered abortion pills online and then took them without medical supervision. This is, of course, highly dangerous.  Why then were we shown coverage of pro-abortion politicians and campaigners taking them on a train platform in Dublin, having brought them down on the train from Belfast in some kind of misguided publicity stunt?

Why didn’t the documentary address the real scandal about these pills – that counsellors in the tax-funded Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) told women how they could order them online, despite being fully aware of their illegality, not to mention the danger to women’s health?  It’s been over two years since the story of this scandal broke in a national newspaper and the media still treats it – well, like a secret.  To date, no representative of the IFPA has expressed remorse or guilt about this reckless behaviour.  They’ve never even addressed the issue, and this documentary chose to ignore it too.

On and on it went, a virtual master-class in how to present a one-sided argument and call it balanced journalism.  The presenterHarte sat down for a chat with Kitty Holland, the Irish Times journalist who wrote about the death of Savita Halappanavar before breaking the Miss Y Case in August 2014.  But the secrets remained hidden.  While the Irish Times filled endless column inches about how Savita’s tragic death demanded the introduction of the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act 2013, they could not explain why three independent investigations proved that Savita died from “medical mismanagement” and not from the lack of an abortion.

Nor could they produce the evidence required to support the 2013 Act.  Its barbaric provisions, which allow for abortion during the full 9 months of pregnancy where there is a threat of suicide, are not based on any medical evidence whatsoever – for the simple reason that there is no evidence internationally that shows abortion to be an effective treatment for suicide ideation.  On the contrary, there is ample evidence to suggest that abortion can have a negative effect on a woman’s mental health, a fact the members of Irish abortion recovery group Women Hurt would have been able to confirm had the makers of this documentary been interested.  But then again, why let those awkward facts get in the way of what was clearly a pre-determined agenda?

And if we’re dealing in secrets, then maybe we should mention the second human being involved in the Ms. Y Case – the baby who was delivered at 23 weeks’ gestation by emergency caesarean section when a woman who had allegedly been raped tried and failed to secure an abortion under the 2013 Act. Most commentators prefer to airbrush the baby out of the discussion completely.  The few that acknowledge his existence accept that his level of prematurity means that he will be facing a lifetime of medical issue.

The Irish Times recently reported that the woman involved in this case is planning to sue a number of bodies on the grounds that she should have been allowed to have an abortion earlier. This means of course that the baby who is currently being ignored has now been relegated to the role of inconvenient mistake.  Surely for a documentary intent on exposing secrets, the greatest secret of all is how we can hope to maintain a civilised society in the face of such appalling double standards?

Perhaps that’s why Tara’s story reveals the most about the current mood of pro-choice campaigners.  At just 24, she doesn’t feel ready to be a mother and wants to go travelling.  So she’s having an abortion.

In many ways, Tara herself is let down by the actions of those who have kept abortion’s guilty secrets.  In an open, transparent society, she would know about the risks abortion poses to her future wellbeing.  She would have the benefit of the experience of the women in Women Hurt, who have borne the pain of abortion and now try to prevent other women from going down the same route.  If her baby is diagnosed with a terminal illness, she won’t be told about perinatal hospice facilities.  If she wants to order an abortion pill over the internet, counsellors at a tax-funded counselling agency may well assist her as they have done in the past.

This is why abortion is Ireland’s guilty secret.  Because all the publicity stunts in the world cannot hide the fact that this wasn’t a documentary about what’s best for women.

This was another exercise in protecting and promoting the reputation of abortion itself.  Negative stories and depressing details were carefully suppressed.  But this ongoing campaign isn’t even a guilty secret anymore; it’s an open secret.  In the case of long-standing scandals like the IFPA, it would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly.  Like all secrets, abortion will be exposed sooner or later.  The only tragedy is the number of human lives that will be damaged or discarded in the meantime.

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Cora Sherlock
Cora Sherlock
Cora is a human rights activist, lawyer & writer. She is also Deputy Chair of the Pro-Life Campaign in Ireland.

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