Growing Up In Northern Ireland, Abortion Law Shaped All My Relationships

Photo courtesy of Anna Cafolla.
On the morning of 10th April 1998, a new dawn broke in Northern Ireland – the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the sectarian conflict known as The Troubles. After decades of violence, death and destruction among the Unionist and Nationalist communities that defined generations, the agreement ushered in a new era of peace and progress. 
At 4 years old, I was one of the 'ceasefire babies' – a generation that our parents believed would witness growth and change, reap expanding opportunities outside of traditions and army checkpoints. 
In the two decades since, it has been an imperfect peace, at once turbulent and static. Stormont (NI’s government) collapsed over 1,000 days ago and without a functioning assembly, paramilitaries strengthen, Brexit chaos looms large, vital legislation for the mental health crisis and domestic abuse falls away, and NI lags behind on urgent human rights issues – specifically, LGBTQ+ rights and abortion rights.
But this week, the Northern Irish people have once again woken up to a horizon-broadening political landscape, despite the mess of Brexit and Boris’ backstop. An amendment pushed through by Labour MP Stella Creasy was voted in by Westminster earlier this year, decreeing that should Stormont and its leading parties – the DUP (yep, the evangelical dinosaurs that have propped up the Tory government) and nationalist party Sinn Féin – fail to reform the executive before 21st October, Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws would be overhauled. 

I was one of the 'ceasefire babies' – a generation that our parents believed would witness growth and change, reap expanding opportunities outside of traditions and army checkpoints. 

And so, NI has gone from having some of the world’s most constricting laws on abortion – the archaic 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, upholding that abortion is only available if significant risk to a pregnant person’s life can be proved, illegal even in cases of rape and incest – to the UK’s most liberal. 
Yet on this monumental day, four people will still travel from NI to access abortion elsewhere in Britain, like thousands before them. For many, a defining moment in their life will be compounded by the lack of vital healthcare afforded to our English, Scottish and Welsh counterparts. 
As this week approached, the DUP and the anti-choice movement attempted to bolster national and religious identity to stop reform. The DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, met with religious leaders and paramilitary leaders, while party members Gavin Robinson and Jeffrey Donaldson have attempted to paint abortion as a partisan issue
For the nationalist community, the ongoing issue of the Irish Language Act has been pitted against abortion decriminalisation. Recently, while I was attending Saturday mass at home, my local Catholic priest preached emphatically about defying "English, Westminster intervention". 
The Northern Ireland you probably see on the news can look conservative, two-dimensional and chaotic – especially with the DUP dominating discussions. But Northern Irish identity has always been textured and quirk-ridden. Characterised, yes, by religion and nationality, but neat social markers that were once ominous are now shared jokes, from how you say 'H' ('haitch' or 'aitch') to what refreshments are on offer after mass/church. 
If you’ve watched Channel 4’s Derry Girls you’ll remember a hilarious scene where they break down, absurdly, what’s Catholic and what’s Protestant. Who owns tea? Who has dibs on ABBA? People on Twitter even tried to work out Drag Race UK contestant Blu Hydrangea’s religious background
But in Northern Ireland, despite what our leaders want us to believe, we don’t live single-issue lives. I’m from a Catholic, Nationalist background but grew up in a DUP stronghold area, punctuated by paramilitary activity; in 1993, my father’s café was collateral damage in an IRA bomb. 

The Northern Ireland you probably see on the news can look conservative, two-dimensional and chaotic – especially with the DUP dominating discussions. But we don't live single-issue lives.

At school, my sex education was abstinence-based and shrouded by religion. Over the years I’ve campaigned for abortion rights. There have been some tough but vital family conversations about bodily autonomy, particularly with my mother who struggled with my pro-choice views. It almost fractured us but now I feel closer to her than ever, as we’ve found common ground – thankfully – as decriminalisation approaches. 
Photo courtesy of Anna Cafolla.
I’m not the only person whose life has been shaped by Northern Ireland’s abortion law. Now, as the legislation changes, many of us are able to take stock of how a future-facing, feminist perspective has changed our sense of our own identities. 
"Pro-choice activism has been the final nail in the metaphorical coffin of my Catholic upbringing," Dr Maeve O’Brien, from County Tyrone, tells me. "It has ensured that my personal and social identity as an Irish woman from Tyrone is cemented in feminism, as opposed to any kind of identity shaped by the national question. Reproductive justice is the cornerstone of freedom for women, and neither the Catholic Church or Irish Nationalism, in my view, has this goal at their core."
"I do not believe that 'both sides' should be engaged with in the abortion debate," Dr O’Brien continues. "The objective of anti-choice fundamentalists is to go against EU law, WHO recommendations and to violate the human rights of women and girls. Such extremism should be de-platformed."
Derry-based activist Shannon Patterson is from a Presbyterian, Unionist background. "Pro-choice activism for me 100% changed my sense of identity," she explains. 
Going to an English university and becoming part of the Republic of Ireland’s Repeal the 8th campaign compounded it further for her. "I could no longer ignore how the world worked," she explains. "I started quietly campaigning from England, my opinions were however left in England every time I flew home for holidays, and picked up again when I returned. I still felt guilt for removing the shackles of my upbringing, because NI wasn’t changing with me."
Photo courtesy of Anna Cafolla.
"It was only when I had an abortion in England, safely and legally, that I really campaigned openly. I had to ask myself a lot of difficult questions, but having my abortion changed my life for the better. I joined Repeal – they gave me a platform and a voice. Activism gave me a new community, people who just wanted the world to be a kinder place for others."

At school, my sex education was abstinence-based and shrouded by religion. There have been some tough family conversations, particularly with my mother who struggled with my pro-choice views.

Many of the NI activists I speak to highlight the Irish Repeal campaign as a moment for interrogating their Irishness. "Post-repeal has only strengthened my convictions – continuing the fight in the north has brought out hardline misogyny from church and political elites," says O’Brien. 
Rachel Watters, another NI activist who comes from a mixed Catholic and Presbyterian upbringing in Belfast, adds: "Being involved in a shared struggle and having a political education in what it means to be an Irish feminist changed my view of my identity." 
"Now I would describe myself as an Irish woman before I would say I'm Northern Irish. Being involved in abortion rights campaigning has given me the chance to see that Irishness is not exclusive to the south or to people who have grown up always feeling Irish."
The pro-choice movement recognises the delicate overlap of people’s politics, social dynamics, relationships and identities, best highlighted by the two hashtags used by campaigners: "#NowforNI" and "NowfortheNorth", interchangeable, depending on whether people wish to define as Irish or Northern Irish. 
Emma Campbell of Alliance for Choice agrees: "The hashtags are really indicative of the identity issues here that we must respect." A recent video from the group, #EqualityProds, rejecting DUP politician Gavin Robinson’s claims that abortion and equal marriage were partisan issues, featured a range of activists from the Unionist community declaring their support for change. "I’m proud to be a Prod for equality myself!" Campbell adds.
"Most people in Alliance for Choice – a movement of people from all backgrounds – put their social identity before their national one, but that doesn’t mean we don’t understand the people in NI who feel or vote differently. People don’t vote for the DUP because of their stance on abortion, they vote despite," Campbell continues. "When the DUP isn’t succeeding – like right now – they try to turn it into one against the other.

We're arriving into the 21st century together.

"We consider ourselves part of an all-island movement because as far as we're concerned, regardless of your politics, a change in the law for anyone on the island is beneficial for everybody," she adds. 
The residual trauma of a conflict that polarised communities lives on in our politics; powers put in place by the Good Friday Agreement to satisfy 'both sides' have been actively used by political parties to halt progressive law reform. Though many feel they’ve moved past tribalist politics  – polls have shown people to be overwhelmingly more liberal on issues of LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights than our lawmakers would reflect – Northern Irish politicians still use identity as a bargaining chip. 
Danielle Roberts, also of Alliance for Choice, researched her PhD on the barriers to political participation for Unionist community women. "There was this idea that you have to choose between your Unionism or your feminism – if you’re a feminist Unionist, there’s no party for you," she says. "People are still grappling with that." 
"There’s a feeling in some parts of society that human rights are a Nationalist issue – but it isn’t, especially when issues like abortion, domestic violence or childcare provision are so out of step with Great Britain. We have to change those perceptions." 
To soothe that tension, Campbell highlights that the group has had to "sell" Westminster's intervention in NI laws to Nationalists as the repeal of British, colonial laws.
Both Campbell and Roberts highlight how pro-choice messaging has grown to be more inclusive, but it’s forever a learning process when it comes to diversity of race, class, accessibility and gender identity. The group uses the words 'women and pregnant people' in their campaigns to be inclusive of trans men; they provide refreshments and free transport to events where possible to help poorer people get involved; an upcoming workshop will centre disabled voices and the yearly vigil for Savita Halappanavar is led by a woman of colour. Their merch has also levelled up – the less confrontational and cerebral "Trust Women" slogans are now, proudly, "Abortion Rights Now". Love Equality, NI’s largest LGBTQ+ campaign, stands in solidarity.
Eilish Graham, who is from Belfast but now lives in London, recalls how identifying openly as pro-choice was once more difficult. "Unlike today, it didn’t make you friends, even as recently as when I was at university around 2011," Graham says. "It was isolating. Things have changed monumentally in such a short space of time." 
Graham recalls feeling unwelcome in Queens University Belfast's Catholic chaplaincy in the mid 2010s, when they were aware of her activism, and being ridiculed on the radio for her speech impediment when speaking about activism. Now, the university has an official pro-choice campaign group.
Many activists speak of the pro-choice community they’ve found – either online or in the real world – as a space for friendships and support networks. I myself met one of my greatest pals at a rally outside London’s Irish embassy, and we now co-run a pro-choice club night, Room for Rebellion, with other friends.
"To put it tritely, my CNR [Catholic, Nationalist, Republican] background family has been 'on a journey' due to my pro-choice activism, and I am proud to say we are a pro-choice house," says O’Brien. "We now vote primarily in response to party stance on abortion rights – which means that Daniel McCrossan from the SDLP [a nationalist party, and an anti-choice candidate] for example, has lost first preferences in West Tyrone."
"My friendships are exclusively with people who are pro-choice. Our bonds have only strengthened in the fight for decriminalisation in the north."
Roberts adds: "I’ll wear my 'Abortion Rights' shirt to the shops and a woman with her trolley will just smile at me, or I was ordering a pizza last week and the woman taking my order said how much she loved my badge. Nice encounters like that are so much more frequent."
Last year’s Life And Times Survey shows that Northern Ireland is largely pro-choice (75% in favour of reform); multiple women, like Sarah Ewart and Ashleigh Topley, have brought their cases to the courts and press, while thousands have protested in NI and beyond. 
While NI politicians attempt to protect the status quo and instil 'us versus them' politics, NI’s people are progressive, and proud of it. Growing up in Northern Ireland, our identity feels inherently political and something we continually have to fight for – our right to call ourselves Irish or British is in the courts, our peace structures are rattled by Brexit, our bodies and reproductive systems used as political pawns. Abortion law reform marks a political shift for the better – one that’s both personal and shared. 
As Campbell puts it: "We’re arriving into the 21st century together."
Please sign our petition and help us change the law to fix abortion provision once and for all.

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