“Hey Mum, great casserole. Have you ever had an abortion?”
It’s not exactly dinner table chat, is it? But even now in my thirties, I’d struggle to find the right moment to broach the ‘A word’ with my parents. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, you see, and went to convent school in Belfast.
Women had abortions – you just didn’t talk about them. And certainly not with your children.
So hurrah for Lena Dunham’s mum. When asked by her Girls star daughter whether she’d ever had a termination, the photographer Laurie Simmons answered honestly. She was 17 and simply wasn’t ready for parenthood.
Earlier this week the pair spoke out in the hope that other American women would put the same question to their own mums – #AskYourMother has already been trending on Twitter – and de-stigmatise abortion in the process.
Considering half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and roughly four in 10 of these end in abortion, if you’re American, there’s a fair chance your mum will have been in Laurie’s situation.
One in three women in the UK has had a termination. That’s one big, fat statistic the pro-lifers (or anti-choice brigade, as Dunham’s mother insisted her daughter call them) can’t ignore.
Take my friend Clemence. She’s a busy mum with two daughters under the age of seven. When she discovered she was pregnant again, neither she nor her husband felt financially or emotionally equipped for a third child and arranged a termination a few weeks into the pregnancy.
It’s a decision she stands by, and plans on telling her daughters when they’re older. “It’s never a good thing to have secrets in a family and I want to be open with my girls,” she says. “They need to understand what options are available to them and know that what they do with their body is their choice.”
Jules Hillier, Interim CEO of Brook, agrees:
“One in three women will have an abortion by the age of 45 – abortion forms a common and integral part of reproductive healthcare. Breaking down the stigma around abortion is especially helpful to young people, who all too often get biased and inaccurate information about abortion in schools.
“It can also be tricky for parents to tackle issues to do with sex and relationships with their children, but if you approach conversations with openness and a willingness to listen, it will become easier”.
It’s a conversation I wish I could have had with my mum. But growing up, I always knew abortion wasn’t a viable option – the implicit understanding was she would look after any unplanned children to allow me to finish my education.
We’ve danced around the subject in recent years and I’m fairly certain her views are more malleable in case of rape or sexual abuse. But “it’s not the right time” wouldn’t have cut it – and the same is true within many other Catholic and Northern Irish families.
Instead, the topic was introduced in our religious studies lessons at school, via a video called A Silent Scream, – a risible piece of anti-choice propaganda featuring an obstetrician who looked like Ronnie Corbett, urging women to “stop the killing”.
There were graphic images of bloodied foetuses, callously discarded by their “feminist” mothers, thrown in for good measure. Of course, when you’re 16 and told, “If Americans can put men on the moon, we must be able to find a better solution”, it resonates.
But religion is gradually losing its stronghold over women’s bodies.
In the US, more than seven in 10 women obtaining an abortion report a religious affiliation. The abortion rate for Catholic women is actually slightly higher than for their Protestant counterparts – 22 per 1,000, compared to 15.
It’s thought that between 10 and 12 women a day travel from the Republic of Ireland to BPAS clinics in the UK. These are just the ones who give an Irish address – many will use a friend’s details in Britain and therefore aren’t included in the statistics.
A shocking report from Amnesty International, earlier this year, found that many women were turning to websites to buy ‘illegal’ abortion pills. While at least 4,000 a year travel to England from Ireland for terminations.
Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network, helps women from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man raise the £400 to £2,000 needed to travel to England for an abortion.
She’s never had one, but has discussed her work with her eight-year-old daughter.
“It was a gradual process and I used a very light touch,” she explains. “She knew I had a charity that helped women and when she was five, she asked what I helped the women do.
“I told her I helped them not have babies. At first she said that was terrible, but after we discussed it, her conclusion was that being a mummy or a daddy is a really big job and only people who want to be mummies and daddies should be.”
Pity the Irish government doesn’t share the same sense of logic. In Ireland, abortion carries the risk of a draconian 14-year jail sentence for both the woman and any medical professional who helps her. You can see why historically, women have been reticent in coming forward with their stories – even with their own daughters.
But the times they are a changin’.
A recent survey found that two thirds of people in Ireland would vote ‘yes’ to decriminalise abortion. A number of high-profile women, such as Irish Times columnist Roisin Ingle and writer and actress Tara Flynn, have spoken out for the first time about their abortions. Pro-choice campaigners like Janet Ni Shuillbeabhain, who had a termination when she as 18, believe this is the only way to make any meaningful change to legislation.
“The vast majority of schools in Ireland are Church controlled. Last year, my son was told to write a poem on abortion from the point of view of the baby. I’m very open about sex and sexuality with my children and we’ve had lots of discussions about the different reasons a woman might have an abortion,” she says.
It’s not just talking to your daughters about abortion, though. (Although, as Dunham says, this is a good place to begin).
It’s talking to them about responsible parenting and the choices available to them when contraception fails. It’s talking to them about miscarriage and mental health and how it’s OK to say no, and all the other things a woman needs to know to kick ass in this world.
And girls, if you haven’t had that conversation, #AskYourMother. The answer might surprise you.