Susan Cahill: ‘My abortion was not remotely traumatic … I have no regrets’

Dr Emer O’Toole and Dr Susan Cahill at The Theatre of Change Symposium 2016 at the Abbey Theatre.Photograph: Gerry Lundberg PR.

The Irish Times,

Last month, Susan Cahill shared her abortion experience at a symposium in The Abbey Theatre. This is her story.

It’s 2013. I live in Canada. I teach Irish Studies and love that I can talk and think and write about my wonderful, yet complicated, country for a living. I am on a plane back to Ireland where I have been invited to give a talk based on my research. This is a big deal. I am excited and terrified. My period is late.

In the plane bathroom I notice that there is a little bit of blood. This is a huge relief. Back in my seat I feel untethered, loosened from the skein of worry that had been tightening around my muscles. I ask for a glass of wine and search through the movies for something mindless. I try to sleep. I can’t. I stare out the window into the blackness. I think about home, seeing everyone, how it will feel. Going home is always a bit fraught - excitement, guilt, and loneliness all jostling for attention.

In the Paris airport bathroom the tampon is bloodless. I freeze, replacing it anyway - travelling and flying always make everything a bit erratic, I convince myself. The altitude confused my body, my womb needs dry land and a secure geography. That is all. I do not think about what the secure geography of Ireland will mean if blood doesn’t come.

In Dublin I stay with a friend who is seven months pregnant and delighted to be. In her bathroom I remove another bloodless tampon and concentrate on the cramps that stab through my stomach. I’m sure that cramps will lead to blood one way or another.

It’s hard to disentangle jet lag from the exhaustion that drags at my bones, difficult to decipher the spasms that jag between my hips, the feeling that my insides are being dragged into the earth. The nausea could be a hangover. There is a persistent tugging at the centre of me as if something is trying to hook on. I try to work out if I’ve felt it every month. In any case, I decide to ignore everything until after my friend’s wedding. I can be good at denial. Wine helps.

On the phone from New York, a friend is reassuring, as she always is.

- Cramps are definitely a good sign. It’s just delayed. Don’t worry pet. There’s no way you could be. One night?! It’s really not that easy.

I feel terrible for airing my worries to her - she has been trying to get pregnant for two years now. The disappointment is starting to wear her down. My fear would be a miracle for her.

I go to the wedding. It is a slight blur. I drink. Wine and endless martinis, that all seem like incredibly good ideas at the time, each one a revelation. I dance, throwing myself across the floor, making best friends with everyone in the room. I am good at this. Parties. New people. Making the dance floor my home. But I can’t shake the murmurs from the back of my head that my breasts are bigger, and tender, and that my mid-section feels like it’s on loud speaker, announcing itself through my dress.

The hangover is brutal and I have forgotten to pack any kind of pants so I wear my pyjama bottoms to breakfast. I feel the need to explain this to everyone. I have an insatiable thirst for orange juice. The hangover is trying to kill me. I don’t have the energy to be embarrassed by my pyjamas any more. I don’t care what the taxi driver thinks. All I need is to crawl into bed.

The next day I buy a test. I avoid the ones with smiley faces. I skip over the ones with the blue lines. I need the word itself, I need to see the letters spelling it out:


2-3 weeks.

I only need one test to convince me. It seems inevitable and utterly impossible. I am instantly nauseous.

The weirdness of my body makes immediate sense. It is almost as if my body had always known. I had woken in a dead panic a few weeks ago, propelled out of bed to stare at myself in the mirror, convinced in the half-asleep surety that I am 5 months pregnant (instead of just having conceived - which is much more logical, and true). I had scanned Google for confirmation that you could bleed and still be pregnant, which, of course, Google provides in numerous hysterical forums.

I am amazed at the way your body could know and think and remember but that your consciousness would only understand part of the story. It was as if they spoke slightly different languages or that one wasn’t the best listener. How can knowing and not knowing something overlap so completely?

The sudden alignment of these knowledges makes me surprisingly calm. And the decision is clear. I had always thought that this would be a difficult, emotional, and conflicted moment. I had broken up with my long-term boyfriend because he didn’t want children and I did. But my thought process is simple - this is not going to happen. I am not doing this on my own at this point in time. I am not involving someone who lives far away. It would be unfair. Going through with this would make everything unnecessarily difficult. Meeting someone. Work. Life. I am not ready to do this alone.

Decision made. Clear. Certain. No vacillation. Easy.

Not easy. I am home. I am in Ireland. I am here for a month. Ireland doesn’t believe in abortion. Ireland believes in the foetus. Abortion is illegal. It is unconstitutional.

And not only that, it is all over the news. On every radio station, on every Irish TV station, people are having ludicrous conversations on the subject. This will become the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (which allows an abortion if there is a substantial risk to the life of the mother, including suicide). The debates are mind-numbing - how many professionals need to assess her, what constitutes risk to life - and mainly highlights how little the state trusts women. The debates make me feel insane. I walk out of rooms a lot. I am not suicidal but forcing me to continue with this pregnancy will not be good for my mental health. My life is not at risk but I still deserve to choose what happens to my body.

I need to decide if I travel to England and get it over and done with, or, wait out the month and have it done back in Canada. This current geography would pin my womb to the land.

My friend is amazing. She tells me her miscarriage wasn’t a miscarriage. The pregnancy was not viable. But because she lives in Ireland, and Ireland worships the foetal heartbeat, the doctors tell her that she will just have to wait. To let things happen naturally. It could take weeks, months. Her doctor gives her information about abortion options in England. The Irish health system is done with her. She is alone.

She travelled to Liverpool with her mother, she tells me, back and forth in one day. The return journey is horrendous, she says. Dizzy and bleeding in an airport queue.

I remember a trip to Liverpool a few years ago, to visit a friend. We eat and drink our way up and down Lark Lane. Towards the end of the night a group of incredible local women adopt us. When they hear our accents they tell us about the Irish women who came to Liverpool by ferry for their abortions. “We used to call them the empties”, they say, “when they were on their way back.”

My friend gives me all the information. I sit on the bottom step of the stairs her house, staring at the stained glass in her front door, and dial the number of the clinic in Liverpool. The voice on the other end is kind yet business-like. She asks me a series of questions. Tells me that I am 5 weeks pregnant - explains that it’s dated from your last period, which seems odd to me. But I am now in a world where nothing makes sense. When she asks for my address, there is a slight pause. She explains that there is a separate price list for Irish women. They recognise that we have extra costs so there is a reduced rate. I try not to cry. England doesn’t need to care about us. I concentrate on breathing, listening to kids shrieking on the street outside. I explain that I live in Canada, that it will be covered by my healthcare card, but I would have to wait a month. I love her calmness. The matter-of-factness. She has been through this a million times. Has talked to girls like me before. Nothing shocks her. She thinks that I can wait. The pregnancy will still be very early. I won’t have to travel after the procedure. I can return to the comfort of my own bed. I won’t have to explain anything to anyone. I won’t have to postpone the paper I am scheduled to give. I am slightly relieved with this decision. The thought of booking a flight, finding someone to go with, travelling, all seem like too much. I am lucky. I have other options. Canada will look after me.

But now I have to be pregnant for a month.

My friend and I are sickly pregnant together. We sit together nauseously on her sofa, eating toast and Tracker bars, and watching the entire first season of The Killing. I don’t know what I would do without her. I hide from everyone.

I am fascinated by my body. Everything smells different. My appetites have completely altered. It’s as if a switch has been flicked and everything has been rewired. Alcohol makes me gag, especially wine. Beer is almost tolerable because I am always thirsty. I really can’t drink enough orange juice. I pee all the time. Even my pee smells different. Dense or complicated. If I don’t eat regularly I am nauseous, and I am almost always nauseous. White bread is my saviour, toast is a miracle. I can’t look at vegetables. I can’t even think about fish. I have never known tiredness like this.

The world divides into people I will tell and people I can’t. This isn’t necessarily a judgement on them, more a self-protection strategy. My family fall into this latter category but not because I think they are anti-choice. I just can’t deal with the emotions of telling them. It is too much, too scary. The people I do tell are wonderful.

I stand in front of 30 people at the symposium. I try not to puke. I listen with detached interest to my friend and another woman discuss their pregnancies over the coffee break. I know I won’t get that far so I smile and nod in wonder. I sneakily eat the stash of Tracker bars in my bag. Constant eating of food that I would normally avoid seems to be the key. I am craving a Big Mac - I have not eaten one in about ten years. My pants are already getting tight.

I can manage Dublin. I can hide in my friend’s house. I can talk to the few people I can talk to about this. I maintain a mode of wry humour about the whole thing. Except for when I want to scream at Ireland. Sometimes I want to cry. I want to be as far away as possible. I want my body back. I want to scratch at the walls. I want to be empty.

It gets difficult when I go home to see family. Nobody knows at home. I’ll just have to brave this one out. I’ll have to fool my mum although mums have a sixth sense when something is up. This will be hard.

I want to talk about abortion all the time and I want to ignore it. I am drawn to the demented radio coverage and I can’t bear it. I don’t want to tell my family but I want to know their opinions. So for this I am grateful to the constant debates about it on the news. Mum is a physiotherapist and is practical and medical about it. I wonder how she would feel if she knew my plan. I think she would be ok - I feel sure that had this happened to us in our teens she would have shepherded us to England. She wanted more for us. But now I’m in my thirties. And mum wants grandkids. So I don’t want to worry her. Or complicate her hopes for my future.

She is delighted that I am home. She proudly presents a Jamie Oliver fish bake to me for my first meal. Even the thought of fish is making me gag. I pick around the edges. She notices. She wonders if I have a bladder infection because I pee even more than usual - and usual is a lot at the best of times. She watches me from the side of her eye when I say, “No, I don’t really want a glass of wine. I think I’ll go to bed before you. Jet lag.” I promise to go to the doctor about the bladder infection when I go back.

A member of my extended family is a pro-lifer. She has been campaigning. We go to visit her. My mum and sister are adept at changing the subject. A part of me wants to have this out. I want her to know that this person sitting in her kitchen, drinking her tea, has been failed by people like her. That I’m unnecessarily forced to be pregnant for a month. That my case isn’t even that traumatic. I have not been raped. My life is not under threat. I am not being forced to carry a foetus with a fatal abnormality. I’m having a termination and it will be the best thing for me. And there will be no guilt. No shame. But, of course, I drink my tea and smile blandly at her religion because she is family. I wonder if she would do the same for me, knowing my decision. Inside I’m screaming.

I remember going to the doctor for a morning-after pill in my early 20s, while at university. I remember the barrage of questions about my sexual life, I remember the judgement. I especially remember the female doctor, hesitant to prescribe the pill, asking, “Would you not just take a chance?” “No,” I reply. “No, I will not take a chance. Because if the chance goes wrong, the consequences are too big.” I have always worried about the other girls she might have said this to.

I fly back to Canada after a month of enduring this pregnancy and the abortion debates. I have never been more glad to see the back of Ireland. My abortion is scheduled for the day after I arrive. I go on my own, which is fine. The waiting room is quiet. No one speaks to each other. There is another woman about my age and two younger girls, one of whom is clearly the friend. A young couple come in but there is some complication about their healthcare. They leave. I worry about them.

Everyone in the clinic is lovely. The counsellor that I have to speak to is kind and non-judgemental. She runs through a questionnaire. I am brought into the surgery. It is bright and clean. The doctor is also kind and non-judgemental. I lie on the surgical table, thick with nerves and anticipated relief. There is a map on the ceiling. I feel thankful to the clinic for providing something to look at, even if it mainly makes me look at my small, conservative island whose geography is such a prison.

I worry that I will see the scan. But it is turned away from my view. The doctor tells me I’m 8 weeks pregnant. The nurse administers laughing gas and an intravenous painkiller. Laughing gas is miraculous. I feel nothing. I can hardly remember being escorted to a recovery bed but the bed feels wonderful, until it doesn’t anymore. They give me a cookie and some orange juice. A friend has taken some time off work to collect me - you cannot leave alone. I have left the clinic a bit too early and can’t stand for too long without feeling faint. My friend drops me at a pharmacy. I can’t stand long enough to receive the instructions from the pharmacist. She is strangely unconcerned about my dizziness. The 5-minute walk home takes a long time. But I mainly feel relieved. I do not have to endure airports or check-in queues or travelling. I am lucky.

It is more recovery than I expected. I sleep a lot. I have never been happier to see blood in the toilet. I am fascinated by the blood, its volume, its consistency. The blood is beautiful. It means that this is over. Each clot is a reminder.

I miss my Irish friends. The ones I’ve told understand what having an abortion means in the Irish context. It means, as Tara Flynn wrote, that you don’t talk about it, that you can’t even tell your amazing mother or your amazing family. This landscape of silence and stigma has distanced me from my family and I am not ok with that.

I tell people instead that I have bad jet lag or a bad cold or that I’m vaguely sick. The clinic has given me a sheet of paper explaining my procedure to give to a doctor for a check up. This feels weird. I cannot bring myself to hand this paper to a doctor. The Irish taboo around abortion makes me uneasy to see it written in black and white even though I have no guilt or shame about it. I never go for a check up.

A few months later I find myself teaching Ireland’s reproductive history, which is a regular topic in my courses. I have never been objective about the illegality of abortion and I am always newly angry about the X-case, Savita, and all the other women who have been failed by Ireland’s system. In a horrible irony, the Savita news broke the same day I taught this subject in 2012. Now I try hard not to get emotional. I hold myself together. My Canadian students give me succour - they are always indignant and confused, angry and shocked when they learn that abortion is still illegal in Ireland. They make me feel supported even though they don’t realise how personal this is. My body has lived this history. My body has suffered this geography.

A year later, abortion is all over the news in Ireland again. A suicidal pregnant asylum seeker is forced to have an early C-section as the state refuses her a termination. My reactions to this seem a bit exaggerated. I can’t stop crying.

Two years later I am on a plane home again. I am going home for Christmas. I am going home to meet my new niece for the first time. I am going home to tell my mother about my abortion because I am going to stand on the Abbey stage and tell the audience my story. I carry this annunciation with me through security, baggage claim, and customs. In the past few weeks I have told my sisters and my brother, siblings scattered all over the world. Their responses were all overwhelmingly positive. “We’re proud of you,” they say. “You have all our love and support.”

I don’t know why I couldn’t tell them. I do know why I didn’t tell them. Ireland.

My abortion was not remotely traumatic. But what was traumatic was the month I spent being unnecessarily pregnant in Ireland, feeling trapped and helpless, knowing that my country did not value me at all.

My abortion was absolutely the right decision for me. I have not regretted it for a second. My only regret is that I felt I couldn’t tell my family, ask for their support. Ireland made this impossible.

In one of the essays in her utterly necessary book Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes, “The story of Cassandra, the woman who told the truth but was not believed, is not nearly as embedded in our culture as that of the Boy Who Cried Wolf - that is, the boy who was believed the first few times he told the same lie. Perhaps it should be.” In Ireland, we need to listen to the Cassandras.

Hysteria, hysteric, hysterical - those words for Cassandra-like women, all come from the Greek word for uterus, a condition thought to be caused by wandering wombs. In Ireland we still have hysterics, wombs made to wander, women whose stories are not listened to, women who are shamed into silence.

Over 5000 women a year are forced to wander their wombs out of Ireland. In the past 20 years that’s over 100,000 women. My story, and the stories of the wonderful Roisin Ingle and Tara Flynn and the brave women who are starting to speak are just drops in that ocean, that vast wave of Cassandras. It’s time to listen.

Susan Cahill is an Assistant Professor in Irish Literature at the School of Irish Studies, Concordia University, Montreal. She tweets @scahill