You may or may not have read recently about the activities of Irish comedian Grainne Maguire. Grainne has been live tweeting her period to the taioseach (Irish PM) Enda Kenny in the hope that it gains some media momentum and highlights the fact that women in Ireland (that’s the South/Republic/’Free’ State – whatever you wish to call it – not NI, where our PM is David Cameron) are still unable to access abortion legally and have to regularly travel overseas to England, often alone, often at enormous expense, to have an abortion. This includes instances of rape, incest, if the foetus suffers extreme abnormality, ie it will not survive once born and perhaps most alarmingly, if the female’s health is in danger from the pregnancy. In 2012 a female dentist, originally from India died in a Galway hospital as a result of being refused an abortion. Savita Halappanava was 31. An autopsy revealed that Savita had died from Septicaemia after experiencing severe back pain and was miscarrying, she asked to be induced on many occasions and was told that “Ireland is a Catholic Country” so and abortion was not an option. This case, this woman’s death, the loss of life to an otherwise healthy and happy female, can be blamed solely on religious fundamentalism – a dictatorship of nonsensical ideologies enforced by a government that is renowned internationally for it’s blatant, shameless and unabashed disregard for the welfare of it’s people. How many times have we seen horrific news stories with shiver inducing mug shots of disgraced Priest or Church Elders detailing the abhorrent and reprehensible actions carried out by them on young victims, over decades, centuries even? It’s fair to say we’re not dealing with a government or institution that is in any position to force it’s citizen’s into conforming to religious, or otherwise, demands or regulations.
“Okay” you say “but that’s the South of Ireland; we’re in the North, we’re part of the UK. It’s totally different up here.”
Well it goes without saying that Northern Ireland is in many ways as far away from being a part of a progressive EU nation as any country could be; you still can’t be gay and marry here, we still have actual real life terrorists sitting in Parliament (if you can call it that) and well – Iris Robinson, remember her? But surely, surely, we’re not as mad as all them Catholics down south, right? Wrong. I found when researching for this piece, that I myself wasn’t even sure of the laws here, having spent the last 4 years of my life in England, where I knew abortion was accessible and also something that was talked about freely, in education, in schools, even on posters in the GP office, I was unaware that upon moving back home, I was giving up what I consider to be a basic human right.*
There have been indicators, perhaps something I come across weekly when going around my daily business, that I’m living in a nation run by nutters, to say the least. When going into Europa bus station (Belfast’s main station, often frequented by tourists) last week, for example, I was met by a barrage of middle aged women, armed with leaflets and clipboards and also, an enormous picture of an aborted foetus. It was 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, “Just in time for the schools!” I can hear them exclaim in their ‘Anti-Abortion, Remove All Rights Except Ours’ HQ. There was also the instance of a man and woman setting up camp at the end of my road with placards stating “TURN OR BURN” and “YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN” on them, which they wiggled, rather humorously. at passers by, this was, once again at 3pm in the afternoon on a weekday. “Do they not have jobs?” I thought to myself, as I text my brother about how funny it is being home, but I didn’t really allow the severity of their activities to sink in and I didn’t even think to spend time reading about or researching the facts behind the Anti-Abortion group. Perhaps I had managed to block them out and trick myself into thinking I was still in lovely liberal Leeds, it’s only now, after reading about Grainne Maguire, that I realise how relevant her media exposure has become.
It’s not just Abortion that’s a tricky subject here in Northern Ireland, sexual health as a whole is often a subject better left untouched.Since coming home, I’ve talked a lot less about sex, for whatever reason, sex is not a topic that’s as easily talked about here as it was elsewhere. I’ve had conversations with people who have experienced life on both sides of the Irish Sea and they too have spoken of the strangely liberating and scary realisation that, once on English soil, sex is a much more normal, open and easily discussed topic and not something that the SU girls will judge you for. I guess that facts are that people are always going to be eating, drinking, shitting and having sex, so for it to be a suppressed subject matter, not only in conversation but by the education system, by the government, by the health service, is like never commenting on your eating habits ever again, it’s just a normal everyday thing that people do. When I arrived at university my ‘Welcome Box’ came with a packet of Reece’s Pieces, a bottle opener keyring, a few posters, a condom and a little pamphlet on the GUM Clinics in Leeds. Up until this point (I was 18) sexual health was something I had only heard discussed as a subject that made you squirm in your chair in school Biology, touched briefly upon by an overweight middle aged man (in my case a very Right Wing DUP voter) as you drew dicks on your friends pages waiting for lunch break. It wasn’t until university and the realisation that I was now free to do what I wanted, that sexual health became part of my thinking. The only time I had ever before seen condoms being handed out was at Belfast Gay Pride (QUICK! Don’t let them gay’s reproduce!) and I had no idea where in NI I would have went should I ever want to learn more about a GUM clinic, never mind visit one. it became apparent however, that my English peers were pretty clued up on matters involving their sexual well being, and a flat visit to the GUM clinic seemed like a good idea post Freshers. I was amazed, stunned, at how casual and normal this seemed to be for everyone but me, waiting in the clinic, speaking to the nurse, it was all okay, and ordinary. There were no ladies in stiff collars judging me on the way in or bible verses on the walls reminding me of my sins, it was, dare I think it, something to be proud of, taking control of your sexual well being was seen as something that was commendable, admirable and smart. This became something that I regularly kept on top off, in the mainland, they actually offer a postal test that you carry out yourself and receive the results by text a few weeks later. Good sexual health etiquette was easy, and why shouldn’t it be? It’s one of the most normal things we will ever encounter in our adult lives.
You can imagine my horror then, that I realised upon returning home, that things we’re not the same. A few discussion with close friends revealed that, not only had all but two of them not been tested, ever, but that they frequently didn’t use condoms and, to my horror, of the few that had been tested, they had never acted upon their results. It became routine at University to be tested every 6 months, whether a new partner had been attained or not, as you never real know who or what you’re dealing with from someone’s past. I planned on keeping this routine up when at home and went to order a free test online and was met with a rather aggressive message that free tests are NOT funded by my local council. Okay I thought, I’ll explore other options. I rang the GUM number to find out how to be tested. I live in a pretty urban area just outside Belfast, so I assumed this wouldn’t be hard. After my 3rd attempt at calling and leaving two voice mail messages as instructed, I received a call back to be told that, if I wanted tested I could either make an appointment for 3 weeks away in the Royal Victoria Hospital or I could head to Downpatrick (a 20 mile journey of which I would have to head into the city centre and back out) for a drop in morning, in the hope that they could fit me in. “Are these really my only options?” I asked the nurse on the phone. “Yes, unless you want to book in with your GP” “It’s 4 weeks for a GP appointment in my area at the moment.” I replied, “Well” she went on “then, yes. That’s all we can offer at the moment.” – I was stumped. I knew that we had funny opinions on a lot of things over here, and that often they aren’t the most progressive or liberal in their persuasion, but to be given the realisation that maintaining a good level of personal sexual health was to be so difficult to attain was just something I had not expected at all. In England, sexual health is something everyone is aware of, it’s casual, it’s open, it’s okay to discuss it with partners and with friends, and yet here, only a 30 minute flight away, it’s as if I’m trying to sell 100lb of Cocaine on the black market or get rid of blood money. Why is it, that being sexually active and liberated in this country is deemed so immoral and wrong by the people making the rules? People that, we know, for a fact, are (or are associated with) murderers, abusers, bigots and Iris Robinson sympathisers (sorry, I just can’t help myself, that woman’s scandal and hypocrisy is too deliciously poignant and summarises the nature of our so called government so efficiently, you couldn’t even write it.) Why is it that in Dublin, upon Savita’s death only 2000 people protested? Why is it that if I’m a victim of rape or incest, that I have to then travel to England, feeling persecuted and isolated to have a secret abortion as if I’m the one in the wrong? Why is it that my government, in the place that I was born, can restrict my access to free GUM testing or effective sexual health care simply because of some redundant, irrelevant, debunked ideas about religion, that the perpetrators of these laws have proven, so publicly, so out rightly, so obnoxiously, to disregard as and when they decide? I do not have the answers, nor so do I pretend to, but I do know that it can’t be long until this bigoted dictatorship built upon the foundations of a backwards facing religious rhetoric, that calls itself a ‘Government’ is forced into the 21st century and the basic Human Rights that come with it.
*As I right this, it’s quite literally hitting me the harsh reality of this statement. Moving home has meant being reunited with family, friends, my beloved coastline and soda bread but it’s also meant living in a country that doesn’t actually value the basic human rights of some of my nearest and dearest. One of my best friends, for example, who I’ve never seen happier than in the same sex relationship she’s in now, would be a second class citizen in this place I call home? It’s something I can’t quite fathom, and am definitely going to have to come back to, how truly devastating.