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Abortion and The Ireland-ing of America

Ireland’s abortion ban forced generations of women in my family to live in poverty, servitude, and miserable marriages. Does America want to go there?

By Catherine O'Neill

When Joni Mitchell wrote and sang “Both Sides Now” in the sixties, the Canadian-born singer/songwriter’s lyrics

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

were about the loss she endured after giving up her daughter for adoption when she was pregnant and penniless at age 21. Giving up her baby was a rational choice that haunted her for many years amid erroneous media reports claiming she chose career over motherhood. The pain of loss became her creative journey of healing words for a global generation of women who gave up children, had abortions, or stayed in their marriages while never bonding with those children.

I Am Alarmed by Recent State Anti-Abortion Efforts

So I was rattled to the core on May 15, 2019, when Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed a highly restrictive abortion bill that challenges Roe v. Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. I dug out my old Joni Clouds album and listened harder to the lyrics of “Both Sides Now.”

I had first heard the song in 1983, when I was a feisty college kid excited to vote in Ireland’s first abortion referendum. The country was divided into pro-life supporters campaigning to vote “yes” to protect the life of the unborn versus the abortion activists rallying a “no” vote in order to protect a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body. All I knew was that the woman who raised me and my four siblings was a small, proud woman who jostled with a netted head of curlers she dismantled for church on Sunday. As a devout Catholic, my mother sang in the Friary Choir, was a member of the Legion of Mary, and was educated by the Mercy Convent nuns. She had given up her secretarial job to multiply and take care of her family. Her generation had accepted Pope John XXIII’s announcement to create the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, in January of 1959. Born out of the cultural changes after World War II, Vatican II set out to address relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world. One of its greatest disconnects was to make birth control illegal.

I would spend most of my life trying not to become like the women of my mother’s generation who relied on the joys of menstrual cycles and suffered the woes of the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Caught Between Two Sides of the Abortion Issue (Within My Own Family)

I left my house on voting day and my mother yelled after me, “Vote Yes!” It boggled me why she voted yes after her rants about getting poorer with every child in the low economic tide of the sixties and seventies. At age 13, I became her partner in hardship, working as a waitress and chambermaid in local hotels and sharing my small wages with her. I didn’t want to upset her, so I said, “Sure, I’ll vote yes,” and meandered into town to visit my grandmother. There were highly visible blue pro-life signs on street poles, front yards, and in the clutch of priests and nuns canvassing on street corners. My grandmother led a hardscrabble life through what she called “The Troubles,” a turbulent 1920’s of tension between England and Ireland. I didn’t want to upset her either when she asked me if I voted. I told her that I had voted yes, even though I would vote no in order for Ireland to legalize abortion. Her response was: “What’s wrong with you? I voted no! All the young Irish women going to England for back street abortions and all you can do is vote yes.” I was caught in the crosshairs of two white lies and the two generations of women in my family. I waited intently for the polls to close for the vote count. The “Yes” vote won, and the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution Act was passed on Sept 7th 1983 with a 67% majority. It is referred to as Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution: The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn, equating it with the mother’s right to life.

My mother continued to be a mystery like the Blessed Trinity when I lived at home through college. She once shared that she visited the parish priest when she was in the throes of a postpartum depression after having me. His advice was to go home and please her husband and she quoted him saying “It’s better to have a child on your lap than a sin on your soul.”

The Hypocrisy of the Rich Who Traveled For Abortions

At college, I began to identify with what my grandmother meant when I ferried friends across stormy waters from Rosslare to Fishguard and shared a bumpy bus ride to London abortion clinics. They had found themselves alone with an unwanted pregnancy. I remember the giddy chat on the way and the silence on the return journey. I remember holding their hands on the bus ride home and visiting them for weeks when they missed classes. But what I remember most is our drinking binges and the vacant look, the hollow eyes, and dry tears lamenting they would never be able to pay me back, after confessing they would never be the same after the shame and guilt. Outwardly, I told them they’d be fine, they’d get over this because my grandmother knew a lot of people who survived and moved on. Inwardly, I secretly hoped I would never have to make this decision, never have to bear their loss and emptiness.

I left Ireland in 1986 with $50 in my back pocket and a dire motivation to leave my mother and Catholic Ireland where I found them. My father reassured me on the train ride to the airport: “You can always come home.” I never responded because I knew I would return to Ireland. I left for the states in a huff on a J1 visa which I later extended with an F1 visa. I worked and gallivanted up and down the east and west coasts before I began dating a guy named Joe.*

Exercising My Own Right to Choose Family — in America

It was after three months of hot sex that the pregnancy test came back positive. I was awaiting a visa to visit Australia and there was no plan to stay in the states. I was faced with making a decision I hoped I would never have to make. I flicked through the yellow pages and found an ad for “Pro Choice.” Confusing it for Pro-Life, I made an appointment thinking I was going to discuss what my options were to have a baby in America. I believed it was my body and my choice. I didn’t know it was an abortion clinic until the big blond-haired lady pressed her thumbs into the corners of her mahogany desk and stretched her buxom body in the direction of my 110-pound scrawny one.

“Listen, Duckie, you can’t afford to have a baby here without health insurance, an abortion is your only option, do you know how much it costs to have a baby in America? Any idea how much it costs to raise a child?”

“Who says I am having my baby here.” I answered and left quietly out the back door thinking I wasn’t anyone’s Duckie.

Later that day Joe called, and we met for a drive in his beat-up Ford Tempo with toxic fumes leaking through a rusted hole in the floor. I don’t know why he stopped at Summit Hill Park. It was no coincidence to hear Joni Mitchell on the radio belting out the melancholy lyrics:

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

I looked into the billowy clouds and back to earth at the nearby kids playing in the brisk winter weather, the shrill screeches and giggles of snotty nosed toddlers with ruddy faces, sliding, scooting and swinging their nimble bodies on a play structure.

“I am pregnant.” I said, repositioning the floor mat.

“Catherine, this baby will bring us together, we’ll always be a family.” Gobsmacked — I was not expecting this response.

“But we didn’t plan on having a baby together.” I said, fretful when he seemed so sure of our future and I seemed so rickety.

I was telling him as an act of conscience that he would be a father, thinking all ties would end after he dropped me at Logan Airport to return to Ireland. I had no come back. I wasn’t ready to stay in America, never mind have a baby. I was footloose and fancy free on a mothership of spontaneity, craving adventure in my twenties. What did I know about caring for a baby? Part of me still thought the next pregnancy test would be negative. Most of me wanted to kiss New England winters goodbye and join my sister in the sunny outback for the new year. I hadn’t factored in that I was falling in love and having a baby with a stranger. I knew I could never look at myself in the mirror again and face the fraction of who I might become if I had an abortion, though I was scared and nervous to stay in America without family around for support. What if things didn’t work out? What if Joe or his parents, who I hadn’t even met, might make it difficult for me to leave, or force me to give up my baby?

Why I Never Considered Putting My Baby Up For Adoption

And so I stayed to be with the father of our baby, to give us a chance to be a family. A year after our daughter was born, Joe and I married in Vegas in 1991 because the last place I wanted to marry was in a Catholic Church. We worked together in a family business while enjoying raising our two children in a 17-year marriage. The marriage failed to recover after his affair, however; we divorced in 2012 after years of tension and stress both at home and in the workplace.

As a divorcee, I began to write down my overwhelming fears about becoming my mother. I was on a return flight from Ireland when I made a list of all the traits that prompted me to be like her and not to become her. Turned out most of my decisions had been made out of fear of becoming her, though I did, like her, give up my earnings in my marriage. I wondered if I had made the right decision at the Pro-Choice clinic. Whose Duckie was I? Had I missed something? I wondered what my life would have been like if I had gone back to Ireland to have our daughter. Why did I even tell Joe he was the father? I hadn’t planned to. The moral decision to stay with him in my twenties was not based on need or religion. I was way too footloose to comprehend the financial responsibility of raising a child. My decision to have the baby was made before I’d heard Joe’s readiness at age 34 to be a father. I did not have the clairvoyance to see who I would become in my forties with my feelings of abandonment after his affair. I had been running on a full tank of rage for years before the divorce. Nothing prepared me for the homesickness for Ireland that followed until I began to write.

I’m not sure now why I never considered putting our baby up for adoption. I often think the 20-year-olds like Joni Mitchell who made this decision were culled by the laws of the land without fully understanding the lifelong impact. The women ferried upstream and shuttled out of town, often by a parent, a shocked lover, or a friend forced to keep their little secret safe. I think of the number of Irish women who had silent pregnancies and put their babies up for adoption in Ireland, England, and the USA because abortion wasn’t an option. I wonder how many chose adoption over illegitimacy for fear of the stigma of being a single parent in the conservatism of church laws and politicians who shoot from the hip, suddenly, without any consideration of their words or actions. I wonder how many women like my sad mother stayed in marriages with a child on their lap and led unhappy lives under the emotional duress of not bonding with their children.

Could Ireland and America Switch Places?

I had been living in America for over 30 years when on May 25th, 2018, after much debate, Irish voters were asked if they wanted the Eighth Amendment to be repealed. Again, I thought of the Irish women who, after the walk of shame to an abortion clinic, were never able to live full lives. Once again, I waited intently for the votes to be counted. A peace settled when the country voted by 66.4% to 33.6% in favor of removing the 1983 amendment. It proved to be a 64.13% turnout, with over 2 million votes, one of the highest ever recorded. The fact that the margin for the passing of the 1983 referendum and its 2018 removal are both in the 60% range shows a drastic electoral shift over a 35-year period. I knocked back a few Guinness to celebrate the fact that generations of women will no longer be subjected to the tyranny of laws masked by religious conservatism.

The fight is not over. Alabama has passed a bill to make abortion illegal. Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Ohio have followed, signing bills banning abortion after about 6 weeks — before many women even know they are pregnant. Although a recent poll shows 77% of the US population in favor of abortion remaining safe and legal, the Guttmacher Institute (a national nonprofit organization monitoring state policy developments) says there have been 378 abortion restrictions introduced between January and May 2019, 40% of them being abortion bans. The Supreme Court has announced that this month it will hear arguments in the case of June Medical Services v. Gee, which challenges the Louisiana ACT 620 (“Unsafe Abortion Protection Act”). The case asks if states can prevent doctors without nearby hospital admitting privileges from performing abortions. Many southern and midwestern states such as Louisiana have already implemented T.R.A.P. laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers), which are deliberately designed to deny doctors local hospital access. Gee will be the first abortion-related case to be heard in the high court since the confirmation of conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by President Trump.

The case will test the court’s definitive response three years ago to an identical Texas case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which declared an unconstitutional burden on access to abortion. If Louisiana wins, the state will have only one abortion clinic and the ruling will set a precedent for other anti-abortion-minded states. Twenty-two states already identify as ‘hostile’ or ‘very hostile’ toward abortion rights, a drastic change since 2010 when none were reported.

What America Stands to Lose

My angst has returned as I imagine how America could become a kind of old Ireland with a generation of female teenagers, college kids, and women forced to cross state borders for risky abortions, suffer misdirected adoptions, or take marital vows they believe incorrectly will support them for life; some will, like my mother, stay in miserable marriages because they don’t want a sin on their soul. These most recent abortion bills are not only regressive, they are oppressive for generations to come. And note: America already has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and states with restrictive abortion laws have an even higher incidence of mortality for both mothers and infants. We must also remember that it took 35 years — and a whole new generation of voters — to legalize abortion in Ireland and over a half century for the Irish to grow out of the pains of Vatican II.

Today I reflect on who I was as a scared twentysomething American immigrant who sat teary-eyed on a bench under a cluster of trees in Summit Hill Park. I remember Joe’s hug and looking into the fathoms of his deep brown eyes. Glancing up to a panoramic view of the Boston skyline, I wondered then if I would ever live in Ireland again. I had feared America but loved Boston and Joe. I wasn’t sure if I would miss him if we said our good-byes at Logan airport. I didn’t know if these emotions would recede once the wave of passionate sex broke. But I felt peace and power knowing that it was my choice to keep the baby or have a legal abortion.

How Laws Shape Us and Our Futures

Twenty years later, the anger settled over Joe’s infidelity, I realized that no law could have protected me from having to work four jobs in my 40’s as a single parent. In 2012, I was penniless once again when I decided to represent myself in Cambridge Probate Court and divorce Joe. I felt a sadness knowing that he no longer had a relationship with our daughter. The child who had brought us together so many years earlier had chosen to wipe him out of her life. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I respected her decision. I read the sign above the judge’s bench, “In God We Trust.” In a satori moment, I found peace knowing I had made the decision to have our daughter in a country that supported a woman’s right to choose and that this right had made all the difference to me.

In February, the Trump administration announced changes to the Title X program, which would restrict organizations that take federal dollars from providing or referring 1.5 million low-income women to abortion services. Though this change to Title X is being appealed, it directly impacts rural family clinics that offer family planning services. Maine, for example, has just 20 centers and the state currently has the nation’s highest rate of contraception use and a low rate of pregnancies amongst teenagers at highest risk of unintended pregnancies. Federal funding accounts for over 27% of the nonprofit’s budget, roughly $2 million per year. Losing this funding would undo years of progress and put financial pressure on the state to keep family planning centers open for birth control, pap smears, and sexually transmitted disease testing. Along with 20 other states, Maine is suing the Trump administration over changes to Title X.

I’ve lived on both sides of this issue now and understand that years of strict abortion laws in Catholic Ireland only made the poor dip further below the poverty line in order to serve those fearful of losing power in a country with a tightly knit church-and-state relationship. Perhaps the dominating parties in today’s America are simply jockeying for a similar type of power.

Today, I live happily with our daughter in Boston. On cloudy days, I wonder about our strange journey in this land where abortion laws seem so fickle. Might my daughter’s generation be forced to bend and distort their lives to accommodate an ever changing set of rules issued from on high? While it is too early to know the statistical impact the new legal abortion law will have on Irish women’s health, financial, and social status, I can say for certain that going backwards is never a wise way forward.


*Editor’s Note: This is a pseudonym

  1. Mags Keane

    This is the best written essay I have read in relation to abortion, a woman’s choice & how our mothers have suffered over their lifetime under the catholic church. My own mother refused to be “churched” after having her first of nine children. It was the custom back in the sixties to be blessed by a priest having sinned/given birth….before the mother could receive holy communion!Anger rose through me as I read this wonderful piece. Now the USA & the powers that be are turning back time & I quote the author here, ” going backwards is never a wise way forward”.

  2. Dr. Helen Foley

    Catherine I just read your article, wow, you sure have a way with words. The article is really informative regarding the present situation regarding abortion in the US. I also love the mix of the story connecting it to Ireland, your family and your experience in the US. Definitely food for thought.
    Well done. Helen

  3. Caroline Kellogg

    This article was extremely well-written and makes one ponder the fundamental rights all women should have including owning their own bodies and the right to decide for themselves if they want to have an abortion. The current Supreme Court is very conservative, and the anti-abortionists think this is prime time to get Roe v. Wade overturned. It would be many steps back for womenkind and a sad turn of events in this male dominated world. If men had babies you can just imagine how different things would be.

  4. Frances Morrissey

    Hey Catherine , a great read.. fantastically written xx so many home truths about it xx franie xx

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