3 MAY 2017

When I had an abortion it was discreet, convenient and managed with efficiency and sympathy by professional people. It’s lucky I live in England because if I had happened to find myself in Northern Ireland, part of the UK, I would have had a completely different experience.

There is a near total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland. It’s not a separate nationality to the rest of the UK, not a third world country, and yet, in the 21st century British women who live in this region face enormous challenges when trying to access the same reproductive healthcare that the rest of us take for granted.

Women forced to take desperate and dangerous measures

Two years ago I began making Free Safe Legal, a documentary about the abortion ban in Northern Ireland which focuses on the experiences of women who have had to grapple with the region’s draconian laws. My first interviewee was Mara Clarke, the director of the Abortion Support Network (ASN). This is a charity that raises money to support Irish and Northern Irish women to travel and have abortions in the U.K. mainland. She’s warm, vivacious and very funny, but she had some terrible stories to tell about women who will do anything to end their pregnancies.

Drinking bleach, attempting to crash cars, taking a scalding hot bath, deliberately falling down the stairs; these are just some of the desperate and dangerous measures that women will try when faced with abortion bans. One woman in particular haunted me. She had contacted ASN to request help to pay for a termination as she was trying to leave an abusive relationship and did not want to have her husband’s baby. While Mara was in the process of arranging for her to come to England, all contact was suddenly cut; she didn’t answer her phone. The next year, she finally got back in touch because she was pregnant again. She explained how the last time she’d been unable to travel because she had beaten too badly by her husband. I imagined her alone, bruised and afraid, forced to continue her pregnancy through fists and menaces.

On our most recent trip to Belfast we met Jenny, a gay woman who had been raped by two men at a party. Traumatised, unable to share her experience with friends, she travelled to England alone. Her bravery in telling her story on film was inspiring.

The trauma of visiting a family planning clinic in Northern Ireland

While trying to get to England to terminate a pregnancy can be a lonely (and expensive) business, for Northern Irish women even visiting a clinic to discuss contraception can be fraught with problems. Campaigners from Precious Life, the main anti abortion group in Northern Ireland, maintain an aggressive vigil outside the Maries Stopes clinic on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. Last year I filmed their street signs and got a shot of them standing outside the clinic. A woman came up to me, and what was at first a friendly chat suddenly turned very nasty when I told them I was making a documentary about the issue of abortion. Two of the protestors started demanding that I write down my name and address, telling me that the police would arrest me for filming. They had asked me to stop filming them, and I did, but still they tried to get up close, stand over me and try to intimidate me, putting a phone camera in my face while telling me ‘you need to watch out’ and ‘the law isn’t on your side’ (filming on a public street is completely legal, by the way.) I hate to admit it, but I was shaking as I walked away. I can only imagine how terrifying their behaviour would be to a vulnerable woman visiting the clinic.

When we spoke to Dawn Purvis, who was the director of the Belfast Marie Stopes clinic when it first opened, the intensely religious, underlying ideology of Precious Life campaigners became clearer. Sometimes a group of them would chant her name and sprinkle holy water on the ground where she walked. Sometimes the intimidation was more direct. Dawn described often turning up at 7am on a dark winter’s morning to find a man, face covered, waiting for her on the steps of the clinic.

The reality is that these kinds of extreme anti-abortion views are held by a small but vocal minority. Most people in Northern Ireland who are deeply religious don’t believe that their religion should dictate others’ lives. Unfortunately, Northern Irish politicians do believe this, and politicians in Westminster refuse to intervene.

As Mara Clarke of ASN said in that first interview: “We get people telling us they were totally against abortion until their four year-old got leukaemia, until their husband got thrown in jail, until they lost their job. They’re saying ‘I was totally against abortion until I needed an abortion.’ I don’t call these people hypocrites, it just means we need to have really smart conversations about abortion.”

Support Free Safe Legal today

I want Free Safe Legal to reach as wide an audience as possible so that more people have these smart conversations. The film is due to be released in September, in time for festivals and events around the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. We’re running a crowd funding campaign to fund post-production costs so that we can make that deadline, ending Sunday 7th May. We would really appreciate a donation, no matter how small, and please share it on social media using the hashtag #freesafelegalfilm and #abortionrights.

You can find out more about Hattie’s documentary Free Safe Legal here, and can contact her at [email protected].

About author

Hattie Ladd is a filmmaker from London. She studied at Camberwell College of Art and began her career in film making music videos. She started making documentaries after an internship at the BBC. She also manages Make Space Studios in Waterloo and runs Kluster Rooms recording studios in Limehouse.