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Tuesday, March 5, 2002

The trauma of unwanted pregnancy

Special to The Japan Times

1. Marie's story

Only two people know about Marie's abortion. One is her ex-boyfriend, by whom she became pregnant 12 years ago, and one is her husband. Her parents, her brother and her friends know nothing of the fact that as a 19-year-old she took a plane to London from Dublin to terminate her pregnancy.

"The secrecy was far more traumatic than the abortion itself. I had to develop a string of elaborate lies about where I was going, who I was going with," she says.

The situation was made ironic by the fact that her parents, with whom she was living, were concerned about her going away for the weekend with her boyfriend, as the couple were unmarried. "I was just thinking, 'Look, you have no idea what is going on here.' "

The pregnancy was the result of unprotected sex, but though Marie immediately went to a doctor for the morning-after pill, a month later she realized she was pregnant. "There was no question, I wouldn't have been able to go to college, start a career, if I'd had a baby then," she says.

At the time, information on abortion was banned in Ireland and individuals could be prosecuted for supplying information on British abortion clinics. The doctor who confirmed her pregnancy told Marie there were Cosmopolitan magazines in his waiting room and she would find some numbers in them. While family-planning clinics can now provide phone numbers and counseling to people, the laws in Ireland say that the information must be strictly "nondirective."

"I had to memorize the number as I was too scared to tear out the page, and then, shaking, I went to a phone box at the side of the street and made the arrangements. I stood there with my diary working out when I could come over. There were no mobile phones then and I couldn't have rung from my parents' home. The whole situation was stressful enough without having the worries about organizing it from a phone box," she says.

When she got through to the London clinic and told them she was ringing from Ireland, they knew straight away she needed a date there and then. "They were very helpful," says Marie.

At the clinic the staff were very professional and she was told before the operation exactly what would happen. She felt no pain afterward, only total relief. "I just felt I could get back to being normal," she says.

Marie says she wasn't angry at the time about having to go to another country to get an abortion. "But, looking back, I was fleeing my own country under cover of darkness, returning and never being able to tell anyone about it.

"I sometimes wish I could just come out and say, 'Yes, I've had an abortion,' but you just wouldn't know who you were telling, if people would think less of you or hold it against you. The stigma is still quite strong."

2. Siobhan's story

Rosie was living with her friend Siobhan in a flat rented by a group of girls in 1984 when Siobhan found out she was pregnant. Both girls were in their early 20s at the time. Originally from a remote rural village in County Kerry on the west coast of Ireland, Siobhan knew she would find no support in that conservative community.

"She couldn't have gone back to Kerry with the baby, her parents would never have accepted it," explains Rosie (Siobhan did not want to be interviewed). "She came to Dublin to escape Kerry."

At the time there was not only a ban on abortion in Ireland, but also a ban on information about abortion clinics in Britain. Magazines containing such information were occasionally seized as they came off the plane from England.

"We were trying to find some information on abortions in England but it was impossible," says Rosie.

Siobhan had a friend who lived in England whom she contacted for information on getting an abortion. She organized to have an abortion in Liverpool and was there for a week. "When she got back she was like a dead animal," says her friend. "She had to go on her own because no one could afford to make the trip with her. The experience was just bad from the start. She was on her own in Liverpool, she didn't have any money and didn't know anyone."

When Siobhan got back she dared tell no one about her experience. "The stigma was quite bad. It was shortly after the first abortion referendum and there was a very antiabortion feeling in Ireland."

The emotional scars eventually healed and life went on as normal until Siobhan tried to have a baby when she was 30 years old. "She was told she couldn't have a child and that it was because of the abortion she had had. She was devastated.

"If she'd had a chance to make an informed decision before she'd gone for the abortion she might not have felt so bad when she got the news she would never have a baby. She just never got the chance to look at all the options and no one seemed to know much about it," Rosie says.

All names have been changed to protect interviewees' privacy.

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