In Ireland, we are due to vote on Friday on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This piece of text was introduced in 1983 by secretive, right-wing, Catholic pressure groups who exerted all the leverage they could on the government and the people in an attempt to copperfasten the Constitution against any attempts to introduce termination of pregnancy. In the decades since, this unnecessary clause has caused women’s deaths, not to mention untold misery to thousands, while the very act it is trying to ban is merely exported.
So many women have testified here about the damage the Eighth has done. As a citizen, a woman, and a person of conscience, I can only vote Yes to repealing it. A wonderful community has galvanised around our cause. We have Together for Yes, Doctors For Yes, Lawyers for Choice, Psychologists for Yes, Men for Yes, and now Farmers For Yes bringing up the cavalry. (Thanks Lorna. Anyone Irish and on the fence about their vote, check out her post!) For my part, I want to talk about my experience writing abortion in my work.
Writing Women’s Choices
In 2014, I had a novel published which did something then unusual in Irish literature: it contained a storyline where a character under extreme duress seeks an abortion, then undergoes it, and continues with her life without major regret. Up till very recently, this was quite rare; the only other case I could think of was Maeve Binchy’s Light a Penny Candle (supremely ironic, given her brother, a law professor, is one of the founding members and leading lights of the anti-choice movement in Ireland!) To my mind, Binchy handles the scene between Elizabeth, who is procuring an illegal abortion, and Aisling, who in spite of her disapproval offers her support, with nuance and thought. There was wistfulness on Elizabeth’s part, rather than sentimentality; she does not doubt her decision, but sometimes thinks about what would have happened if her partner had been more supportive.
In White Feathers, the abortion takes place during wartime England in 1915. I was going to say that laws there were much harsher than the present, but actually…not in Ireland. The legislation that affected Eva and Lucia would have been Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Having an abortion, or procuring one, could be punished with life imprisonment. This statute was not repealed in Ireland until May 2013, when a ramshackle Act was passed through – ramshackle because the root of the poisonous tree, the Eighth Amendment, was still in place. It was like putting a dressing on an infected wound.
The same law, 100 years on
I got my offer of publication on August 4, 2013. I had submitted my last unassisted draft in April of that year. From the very start of writing the novel to the day I hit “send” on the last draft to my agent, the provisions of the 1861 act on abortion were still law in Ireland. Both then and now, Eva and Lucia would have broken the law – and both would be liable to heavy sentences, heavier than rape. I think it really says something when I’m writing a novel set 100 years in the past and we were still stuck under the same law! Historical fiction is meant to be historical, lads. The clue is in the name.
When I got my notes back from the editor, she and I worked very hard on those scenes, to get the right amount of nuance and conflicting emotions. To establish, in a nutshell, that such an experience, being so physically difficult, was not nothing, but did not have to cast a shadow over everything else either. That the girl in my story very much wanted an abortion and did not, on balance, regret it. I also found it hard to write the part where she had to confide in someone she loved and valued. I had to run through his reaction in my mind, balancing the need to not be burdened with judgement with the requirement to be true to the customs and worldview of wartime England in the early twentieth century. Which would have viewed abortion as quite shocking.
I did not receive much post-publication feedback on that particular storyline, though I suspect it might have “marked my card” behind the scenes. A few friends told me that they appreciated the sensitivity and even-handedness of it. One powerful medium obliquely rebuked me for it, chiding me for allowing the character a jocular thought about being pregnant “after all she has been through”. The idea that she might not be haunted day and night, that she might have felt like a prisoner while pregnant, that she have been able to look back on the whole episode with wry relief and even joke about it – this was obviously still not an acceptable viewpoint to hold in Irish literature, even three and a half years ago, never mind back in the good old days. I still had to pay a penalty for putting it out there, earning a harsher dressing down than many of my colleagues lauching their debuts.
However on balance – I wouldn’t change a word. Not one word. I’m proud of that storyline and glad I wrote it. And I hope that come Friday, the conditions that surrounded the characters in a historical novel…will be relegated to history in Ireland, for once and for all.