Abortion: a common secret holding women hostage to man-made law

I recently re-watched a documentary called Daughters of the Troubles, a piece of work from the late 1990’s produced and directed by American filmmaker Marcia Rock, and written by late Belfast author Jack Holland (more commonly known to me as Dad.)

It tells the story of the Troubles and the working class communities they most affected through the lives of two women, Catholic Geraldine O’Regan, and Protestant May Blood, who not only coped with the violence around them, but actively worked to keep their communities functioning as the violence raged on.

It examines the young lives hemmed in by lack of economic opportunity, social exclusion, and by teenage pregnancy, which the women freely acknowledge holds many back in working class communities.

Yet what struck me watching the footage of teen mothers in their mother’s warm and clean homes – holding chubby babies on hips, the young grandmothers watching over what looks like busy and happy homes – was how stable and even prosperous they seemed.

Young girls in the documentary spoke honestly about wanting to get pregnant, and a glimpse into a well run home with a benign older woman at its head makes you understand why. Intergenerational bonds between women helped sustain communities through the darkest days, and kept the social fabric largely in tact. Here and in every other part of the world. Motherhood, in those moments of warm domestic intimacy and safety, is truly a blessing.


Pregnancy and motherhood is not always a blessed event. Sometimes it’s a disaster, financially, emotionally, medically, or all of the above. Sometimes it’s the result of rape or incest. Sometimes a woman would rather commit suicide than have a child.

But far more often, the situation of an unwanted pregnancy is much more mundane. It’s not the right time. It’s going to make life difficult, uncomfortable, it’s just too much to handle. Few people say this openly, because it is perceived as bolstering the anti-abortion stereotype of lazy, selfish women who would rather kill a baby than take the trouble to raise it.

These days we hear a lot about access to abortion for women with unviable pregnancies. At the weekend Sinn Fein voted to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. The disaster pregnancy storyline may seem to be an easier sell to the public in conservative Northern Ireland. This is understandable. Who is worthy of more sympathy than a pregnant woman who is losing a very wanted child? The fact that women in that terrible position are held hostage to legislative moralizing is horrendous, and as the case of Savita Halappanavar showed, dangerous.

But abortion is not an abnormality – it’s a routine medical procedure for women from all walks of life. This is not a value judgement. It is a fact.

Strategically, there are limits to abortion rights advocacy based on the disaster pregnancy cases. It creates a hierarchy of sympathy – as this blogger put it – of “good” and “bad” abortions. It puts abortion outside the norm. But here’s a little secret the majority of women know: abortion is not outside the norm.

Unintended pregnancies happen. A lot. To everyone, including people with sincerely held religious views. Rich women, poor women. Career women, unemployed women and stay at home mothers. Some women chose to carry on with the pregnancy, and some don’t. And it’s nobody’s goddamn business which one a woman chooses.

At its centre, abortion is not a political or moral question, it is a biological one – a question of biological autonomy. A woman has a natural right to biological autonomy (just as a man does). A foetus does not, because it cannot exist without the mother.

No woman has full bodily autonomy without an unfettered right to terminate pregnancy. There is no male equivalent to this simple fact. For men, there is no everyday reality in which the right to make medical decisions about his body lies not with the man himself but with the law.

The biological, emotional and social repercussions of pregnancy and childbirth are enormous and put women in a totally unique position in society. It is because of this fact that women’s bodies are political battlegrounds, and have been throughout history. Who controls the female’s power to procreate? In many societies, including our own, it is not the woman herself.

Here in Northern Ireland, while the men were busy fighting futile wars, women like Geraldine O’Regan and May Blood were busy picking up the pieces. And yet even after all these years, the powers that be still don’t think enough of us to give us right to full self-determination.


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  • Siún Carden

    At least the ability of our main political parties to close ranks seamlessly on this one issue is beginning to break down.

  • Reader

    Jenny Holland: man-made law
    Is there polling information to suggest that the law would be any different if only women were consulted?

  • Joe Wark

    The reason “teen mothers” seemed “even prosperous” is because the British goverment (who people here on both sides never have anything good to say about) fund their cynical exploitation of the welfare system. Its the great elephant in the room. They certainly did “sustain communities through the darkest days”, they aren’t nice communities either and they produced most of the paramilitaries!

  • Tacapall

    Ah teen mothers the usual suspects to point fingers at but in reality they are seen as incubators of the cannon fodder for which the Crown will exploit to the full in order to enhance their already opulent lifestyles and riches. While communities did experience dark days those parasite billionaires living off the same welfare system experienced no such dark days nor judged as exploiters of the taxpayer. They are not nice people either and they have for centuries produced the biggest bloodsuckers who see us all as nothing but human capital available to be exploited financially and physically whenever their backers in the City demand access to new resources or markets around the world just like we’re seeing happening in the Middle East today where billions is being spend dropping bombs and invading countries all over the place, but sure teen mothers, their to blame for all our problems.

  • Claire McCann

    The political reality in Northern Ireland has always been to export abortion – even for women who should be lawfully entitled to this medical service on the NHS in NI. The emotional and financial cost of abortion is one that falls heavily on women and until it is decriminalised and made available as a medical service in NI, women will continue to be silenced by this harsh and cruel law. This is an excellent account of how accessing abortion services is about empowering women.

  • Joe Wark

    Tacapall, teen mothers are not to blame for all of our problems. I don’t know if you pay tax, but when you get up on as many cold mornings as I have for travel to work, you soon get tired of people arrogantly thinking they have a right to free housing and generally being a drain on the taxpayer.

  • Korhomme

    “No woman has full bodily autonomy without an unfettered right to
    terminate pregnancy. There is no male equivalent to this simple fact.
    For men, there is no everyday reality in which the right to make medical
    decisions about his body lies not with the man himself but with the

    Exactly. A well-respected blogger did a recent piece on Coubert’s 1866 painting “L’Origine du Monde”. (If you don’t know it, do NOT google it at work; it’s deffo NSFW.) I made a couple of points; she responded saying, quite correctly, that I’d introduced a very male-gendered viewpoint. My points were that such a painting showed men just how incompetent men were vis-à-vis women; men cannot give birth, and men cannot be entirely certain that a child is biologically theirs (barring DNA testing, which only gives probabilities). From which argument, it’s a small step to patriarchy, paternalism and men’s control of women.

  • babyface finlayson

    ” And it’s nobody’s goddamn business which one a woman chooses.”

    Clearly that is not so in the view of those who oppose it.
    As a supporter of the right to abortion, I don’t see how it gets you anywhere to maintain it is nobody else’s business.
    Those who believe abortion to be the killing of an innocent are not going to ignore that other life (as they see it!).

  • Elaine

    I think the author is probably aware that anti-choice folk feel that it is there business, but she is asserting that it is, simply, not. I disagree with you that it won’t get the argument anywhere, on the contrary it seems to me a fundamental premise on which the right to access to abortion is built. What is the alternative?

  • Elaine

    What kind of polling data would be able to show something like that, do you think?

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “At its centre, abortion is not a political or moral question, it is a biological one – a question of biological autonomy. A woman has a natural right to biological autonomy (just as a man does).”

    Talk of ‘rights’, biological or otherwise, is inherently political and/or moral.

    I support the right for women to choose but I think this line of argument is weak. It seems as if you are just trying to side step the moral issue rather than deal with it.

    The reason why abortion is a difficult moral issue is because of the biological reality that a small cluster of cells over time grow into a person. The small cluster of cells has no brain or thoughts or feelings but the person it will grow into will. The small cluster of cells has no rights. The person does. The question is then when do we give moral consideration to the growing being? This is not an easy question to answer.

    Trying to reduce the argument to women’s rights completely misses the morally difficult part of the issue i.e. when does a growing embryo become a being that should be given moral consideration?

    “No woman has full bodily autonomy without an unfettered right to terminate pregnancy. There is no male equivalent to this simple fact. For men, there is no everyday reality in which the right to make medical decisions about his body lies not with the man himself but with the law.”

    It is a bit disingenuous to say that abortion laws are sexist because they don’t apply to men. If a man could get pregnant then he would be subject to these laws. From the point of view of pro-life type abortion laws are about protecting a growing foetus. Your sexism argument completely misses this point.

  • Biftergreenthumb

    If a parent beats their child most people would think that someone should step in and stop this. Saying “it’s none of your business” isn’t going to stop people caring. Pro-life types think that foetuses are essentially unborn children. Telling them to mind their own business isn’t going to convince them.

    This whole “biological autonomy”/“its nobody else’s business” point of view completely ignores the difficult question of when a growing foetus should be given moral consideration. It is this that needs to be addressed.

  • Reader

    Elaine: What is the alternative?
    The alternative is to argue that abortion is essentially victimless, and can be supported by humanity, commonsense and reason; not needing to be resolved by an epic confrontation of conflicting rights.
    Because, let’s face it, if you concede that the pro-life faction really are defending the ultimate human right rather than over-sentimentalising a bundle of cells, then the pro-choice movement is just making everything much more difficult for themselves.

  • Elaine

    Is it what needs to be addressed, though? Because that, to me, would entail a debate on what stage of pregnancy abortion might be questionable or impermissible. This debate is a long way from being able to delve into such nuances, as the view she is targeting here is that pregnancy is anyone/everyone’s business from the moment of conception. I know that saying ‘it isn’t your business’ won’t convince them, but that doesn’t make it any less their business. I’m not sure anything will convince people who think that rape victims should be forced to give birth to their rapist’s child, or why any assertion needs to be couched in terms to mollify people who are fundamentalist on the issue.

  • Elaine

    Do you think that pro-life people would accept that line of reasoning, that they could ever see it as victimless? They do stake quite a lot of their argument on it being a practice that makes victims of the most innocent.

  • Reader

    It isn’t going to be easy, but I do think it’s the reasoning that has brought the educated populations and legislators of the western world on board with pro-choice.
    I would far rather argue against a belief in ensoulment or consciousness from the moment of conception than try to suggest that it’s OK to kill a person for e.g. career reasons.

  • Granni Trixie

    I do not agree that abortion is not in the moral arena – overlapping with the political. I suggest that a good approach is for everyone to think through abortion as applies to themselves ….then park that moral position to consider the issue more broadly – especially if you are a professional such as an MLA or a doctor.

    Both men and women tend to take polarised positions on abortion in NI, so I don’t think that “a women’s right to chose” argument would convince many to change.
    However, I suggest that where we might find compromise leading to change, is in making the case that in certain, well defined cases Abortion is legally permitted .
    Another ‘moral’ factor for consideration is around the question of should we tolerate that women have no option but to travel to England should they wish to terminate a pregnancy which impacts unduly on the less well off.

  • Old Mortality

    The sad probability is that if abortion were more freely available, the sort of women described would be the least likely to take advantage of it. Fewer middle-class children relative to underclass children is not a happy prospect for a society already facing up to the problems of an ageing population.

  • Chingford Man

    No self-determination for the unborn child, of course.

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “Is it what needs to be addressed, though? Because that, to me, would
    entail a debate on what stage of pregnancy abortion might be
    questionable or impermissible.”

    And whether abortion is permissible at all.

    Arguing that abortion is simply about female bodily autonomy misses the point. If embryo’s have rights then the abortion issue isn’t just about the mother’s rights.

    If a parent abuses a child it becomes the business of society or the state to step in and protect the child. If an embryo has rights then it becomes the business of society or the state to protect those rights. so saying abortion is no ones elses business only works if we have already resolved the more fundamental question as to when or if the cluster of cells is granted moral concern.

  • Elaine

    There is no science that suggests that consciousness is possible in zygotes or very early stage foetuses, so yes, it is certainly easier to argue from that point of view. But it will not convince those who argue, often from a religious perspective, that life is sacred from the moment of conception, conscious or not. Also it seems to me that most of the ground gained in states where abortion is allowed has been won on the strength of a rights-based argument, e.g. Roe v Wade.

  • Elaine

    Self-determination is notoriously tricky when one cannot survive outside another’s body.

  • Elaine

    I would be interested in hearing a coherent argument as to how, from the moment of conception (still within the time frame that one could legally take a ‘morning after’ pill, let’s remember) a zygote could be said to have rights that absolutely trump those of its would-be mother, and on a par with a living child. If you want to argue that abortion is never permissible, that is the position you have to take; any fertilized egg trumps any woman’s bodily autonomy, every time, regardless of circumstances.

  • Chingford Man

    “Notoriously tricky” – euphemism of the day.

  • Elaine

    I could have said ‘logically impossible’ but the statement still stands.

  • npbinni

    Pro-life advocates, whether Protestant or Catholic, are motivated by a strong sense of right to life. They wish to protect unborn children. Jenny Holland is to be commended for being brave and honest enough to admit that the vast majority of abortions are carried out essentially because of inconvenience.

    Clearly there are some very difficult situations relating to rape, incest and life-threatening illnesses that need to be carefully considered, but the bottom line for those opposed to abortion is not control over women, it is the protection of life, and not the elimination of inconvenience.

  • Reader

    This one, I suppose:
    That’s a couple of years back, and I suspect there is an update somewhere, but on those figures, even tweaking the franchise isn’t going to deliver change just yet.

  • Elaine

    I think you may be wrong there, if you look at the numbers closely and (as per your original question) exclude men. It says that, from their sample of 1130, 29.9% of women support abortion under any circumstances, and 19.4% of women support abortion access in the case of rape or incest. That comes up just shy of 50% – and it also specifies that those who answered ‘no opinion’ or did not know were included in the option to keep things as they are. I think with a larger sample size, or one that included only women of childbearing age, would yield clearer support for liberalisation. This is also borne out in the very same piece, which uses statistics gathered by the Family Planning Association (with a larger sample size of 1,376) during the same time period and shows that 59% of respondents were in favour of abortion access in cases of rape. Would that result be higher if they had asked only women, and made sure that they understand the current legal situation (there is constant confusion over what the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast does, for example)? I dare say yes.

  • eireanne

    neither church nor state has a part to play in regulating women’s bodies


  • Korhomme

    Elaine, I understand what you’re getting at, but, strictly, pedantically, the ‘morning after pill’ works by delaying or preventing ovulation; it isn’t an abortifacient.

  • babyface finlayson

    I think it is almost pointless to address the argument made by those who believe in a soul. They are fundamentalist on that point and will never walk away from what they can only see as the killing of an innocent.
    That leaves the argument to be made with those like bittergreenthumb who are concerned about the moral issue as a pregnancy develops.
    It seems to me the pro choice lobby are reluctant to address that issue, perhaps realising that science will push the boundaries ever further into the woman’s autonomy, as viability comes increasingly early.
    That thorn needs to be grasped. When a foetus is viable then there is some kind of moral issue to be discussed and the woman’s sole right to decide must at least be open to debate.
    An extreme case would be a woman with mental health problems trying to terminate a pregnancy in the last weeks or days. Is it still her right to choose?
    That to me is not black and white.
    And therefore some thought must be given to where lines may be drawn and where society may legitimately have an input.

  • chrisjones2

    I think its more their right to dictate to others how they will live their lives and control their bodies

  • chrisjones2

    It’s not a child its a foetus and does not acquire those ‘rights’ until it is born

  • chrisjones2

    I don’t think that “a women’s right to chose” argument would convince many to change.

    How about …its a breach of the mothers human rights then?

    As for morals, whose morals? Islamic morals in some sects would suggest if unmarried she should be stoned.

  • Korhomme

    Perhaps; but that is not quite the difficulty. There are, for example, laws around other ‘social’ questions. Marriage, that is heterosexual union, is regulated by law; but there is no requirement or obligation within the law for people to get married.

    Likewise, were the law here modified like the 1967 Act, to provide a legal defence to a charge of procuring an abortion, there would be no requirement obligation for any woman to avail herself of it.

    There’s a difference between a ‘wholesale’ prohibition, and legalisation and regulation. There are ‘social’ areas where criminalisation seems quite appropriate, such as an assault (which includes rape) and incest. But for abortion and, say, ‘equal marriage’, there is a gulf between allowing the freedom of the individual and ramming the opinion of some down the throats of those who don’t agree. Perhaps the ‘antis’ are in the majority here; but by what right do they restrict and criminalise the actions of others? Why are the views of the ‘antis’ so superior to the views of those who disagree with them?

  • chrisjones2

    innocence implies guilt …its just another way to offload their prejudice onto the woman

  • chrisjones2

    Ah had …its all a capitalist conspiracy then

    I am intrigued. Is it the Illumaniti? International Jewery? The Masons? The Skull & Bones? Aliens / Nazis in a secret base on the dark side of the moon?

  • chrisjones2

    Ande %’s mean just what? Its not about percentages – its about the rights of the individual involved and its noone elses business

  • Apex

    I wonder how many women who have experienced unintended pregnancy would support the repeated use of ‘inconvenience’ to describe a reality that affects every part of life, from the cellular level right out to identity and possibilities, for the remainder of the woman’s life? I wouldn’t.

  • Chingford Man

    I guess that’s one way to rationalise the act of termination, a procedure so horrific that showing it on screen is one of the last taboos.

  • Reader

    Elaine: …if you look at the numbers closely …
    So you have found a majority for a “Hard Cases” abortion law. That’s a good thing in itself, but is it strategically beneficial? For instance, is it a Trojan horse (like Civil partnerships) or a pressure release valve (like the Good Friday Agreement)

  • Biftergreenthumb

    I think we both agree that a zygote doesn’t have rights. I think we also both agree that a child does. My point is that the difficult question about abortion is when does the growing organismhave rights. Trying to reduce the argument to one about female bodily autonomy tries to side step this issue and so fails to actually engage with the really difficult and morally relevent aspect of this debate.

  • Artemis13

    Women should be able to decide what happens with their body. The idea of ‘deserving and undeserving’ women is horrible, and is what is perpetuated by the current DoJ consultation. Yes women dealing with FFA or rape or incest need to be able to access abortion if they choose to, so does everyone else. I’m glad the author mentioned that sometimes it is simply ‘not now’. Every child should be a wanted child. No contraception is 100% effective; 62% of women with an unintended pregnancy were using contraception in the month they conceived. This can happen to anyone. Many people are one crisis pregnancy away from being pro choice. 40 women a week are traveling to GB to get abortions that they pay for privately (abortionsupport.org.uk may be able to help), there are more who don’t register an NI address, travel outside GB and order pills off the net (womenonweb.org and womenhelp.org for safe abortion with pills). These women should be able to access healthcare locally, not forced to travel and pay, or commit a crime which could lead to life imprisonment. Reproductive rights are Human Rights. Free safe legal abortion, on demand, without apology, as early as possible and as late as necessary.

  • Jenny Holland

    You conflate two very different realities. A flat tyre is an inconvenience. The right to an abortion is a matter of self-determination. It is more akin to the sovereign right of states to conduct internal affairs without interference from other states. A woman’s body is her own state, so to speak, and laws restricting abortion are essentially interference in that state, usurping a woman’s natural self-determination. The fact that your personal worldview equates the termination of a pregnancy (something a woman’s body does spontaneously very often, with busybody lawmakers none the wiser) with the murder of a child should not dictate how another human being chooses to live her life. Your opinions should have no bearing on another’s biological reality. I understand why people believe abortion equals murder. I also understand why children believe in Santa Claus. But I am an adult, living in the real world, where we make difficult choices every day. If one of those choices is to end a pregnancy, for whatever reason, I should be able to that in the safest way possible. If you don’t trust an adult woman to make a decision about her own body and chose her own fate, how can you trust her to raise to a
    child, surely the greatest responsibility there is in this life?