Recent headlines bring up for me memories of the summer of 2014, when I was living in Ireland with my two toddlers and trying to push the news out of my head.

People from the “Yes” campaign react as the results of the Irish referendum to repeal a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion are received, at Dublin Castle, in Dublin, Ireland, on May 26, 2018. Voters in Ireland overwhelmingly backed repeal, enabling women to access life-saving care without having to travel abroad. Peter Morrison/Associated Press, File

Stories on RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, were dominated by the case of an asylum seeker known as “Ms. Y,” who sought an abortion in Ireland after being raped in her home country. Because of Ireland’s abortion ban, Ms. Y was forced to carry the pregnancy.

Because she wasn’t a legal resident, she couldn’t travel to the U.K. for an abortion upon discovering she was pregnant. After a series of psychiatric assessments and court appearances, Ireland’s publicly funded health care system would still not terminate the pregnancy. Ms. Y threatened suicide, stopped eating and drinking and was detained in the hospital until doctors delivered the baby by C-section. Her daily torment, and pledge to end her life if forced to remain pregnant, shook me to the core.

This summer, I’m similarly shaken by the story of another rape victim, this time just 10 years old, who was denied an abortion in her home state of Ohio and forced to travel to Indiana. I was further shaken by the harassment of the doctor who performed the procedure.

When I moved back to Maine with my Irish husband and children seven summers ago, I thought that I’d left behind news of unnamed girls and women denied life-saving health care by abortion bans. In May 2018, I rejoiced when Irish voters overwhelmingly approved abortion before 12 weeks so that women could access life-saving health care without the stigma and shame created by being forced abroad.

As a woman who was raised Catholic, I also celebrated because Ireland had at last rejected the story of Catholic motherhood baked into their public life, culture and constitution. This mythology promoted a false narrative of Ireland as a nation where all women became mothers by choice and all pregnancies were a blessing.


This ignored the stories of thousands of women and children who the state and church locked away in laundries and industrial schools to punish unplanned pregnancies and children for the “sin” of existing outside wedlock.

Between 1971 and 2015, by one estimate, 177,000 Irish women traveled abroad to end unplanned pregnancies or wanted pregnancies with health complications. The last “mother-and-baby home” remained open into the 1990s. The laws created shame and stigma that meant these trips happened in secret.

But Irish women changed that.

They rewrote the national story and the story of women. Despite intense national and international lobbying by Catholic groups to control the conversation, Irish campaigners kept the focus where it belonged: on women and the realities of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth and motherhood. They made sure that Ireland confronted its history, which had always included unwanted pregnancy and pregnancy loss, and a government that was complicit in the abuse and mistreatment of women.

The United States is now embroiled in a battle over who belongs in our own story. Women should not have to share private pain in order for lawmakers to give them the right to control their own bodies. Nevertheless, Ireland’s experience has shown how powerfully and accurately stories can represent womanhood.

We need to hear more stories like that of the 10-year-old rape victim denied an abortion, or the woman in Texas forced to risk her own life by continuing to carry a fetus for two weeks after its death, or the women denied cancer drugs because those drugs might end pregnancies.

The Irish campaign to repeal the abortion ban used the slogan “trust women.” Early analysis suggests that this type of message also worked in the defeat of Kansas’ referendum to allow for a constitutional abortion ban. Whether told by doctors, pastors or women themselves, the ads centered the experiences of women in pregnancy, not the fetus.

I hope that my next déjà-vu when I read a headline will bring some of the validation and hope sparked on that May day in Ireland in 2018.

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