Frank discussions about abortion are rare in Canada — they shouldn't be

When two Irish friends tweeted their trip to England for an abortion, their openness seemed radical — even in Canada.

Pro-life demonstrators in Dublin, Ireland, where most abortions are illegal. Photo, Artur Widak/NurPhoto/REX.

Demonstrators in Dublin, Ireland, where most abortions are illegal. Photo, Artur Widak/NurPhoto/REX.

Over the past weekend, two Irish women live-tweeted their 48-hour journey to Manchester, England. While posting travel pictures on social media is de rigueur these days, their feed racked up tens of thousands of followers and fans (and plenty of haters, too). That’s because the pair of friends went to England so one could have an abortion, a procedure that is illegal in Ireland unless a pregnancy carries an immediate risk of death. Even then it might be denied. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a dentist in Galway, was forced to undergo a brutal three-day miscarriage of an unviable pregnancy because doctors refused to perform an abortion. Halappanavar died shortly afterwards from septicaemia caused by the trauma.

Using the handle @TwoWomenTravel, the Irish friends addressed many of their tweets to Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who has refused to act on calls for a referendum on Ireland’s abortion ban. The prohibition, it should be noted, hasn’t stopped Irish women from terminating pregnancies — the New York Times reports that in 2015, at least 3,451 women from Ireland travelled to England to have abortions — but it has ensured that the procedure is only available to women with a degree of independence and financial means. Throughout Saturday and Sunday, @TwoWomenTravel showed what this experience actually looks like. They documented their flight, their stop at a diner, their trips in taxis and the boredom of the waiting room, where they met many other Irish women. After the procedure, they shared a photo of lightly bloodied bed sheets.

Irish women tweet abortion. Photo, @TwoWomenTravel/Twitter.

Photo, @TwoWomenTravel/Twitter.

In a dozen or so chatty but politically pointed tweets, they demystified the abortion — yes, it can be stressful and a little painful, but it’s also quick, safe and uncomplicated. As they put it, they “wanted to share the very ordinariness of the situation… a series of tediums protracted by stigma. No filters, no monologues, just the facts.”

Despite the prevalence of abortion, this kind of open, frank discussion about abortion is rare. Even in places where it’s legal. In the U.S. and Canada nearly one in three women will have at least one abortion during her reproductive years. Pregnancies are terminated by women of all ethnicities, faiths, ages, education and income levels, and family situations. It is a common and, for many, an unremarkable experience.

Yet in Canada, abortion is often perceived as shameful, evidence that a woman was promiscuous or careless — which is all the more reason it’s so significant and powerful when women do talk about it. It normalizes in public what is already normal in private. This month in Chatelaine, Laura Stradiotto tells her story about overcoming the stereotypes and stigma she felt when, as a happily married mother of two small children, she opted to have an abortion. Even though she has no regrets and knew it was the right choice for her, it took a couple years before she felt comfortable talking to her friends and family about it. Now she says, “We’ve held our collective breath for too long. Let’s begin to let it out together.”

Related: I was happily married with kids. Here’s why I had an abortion

Likewise, earlier this summer Alberta MLA Marie Renaud tweeted at Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jason Kenney, opening up about her own abortion to ask him where he stood on reproductive choice. “Just one question for Mr. Kenney, Pro-choice or not?” Renaud tweeted. And, “I had an abortion and I thank God I was able to. Who wants to change that?” Renaud concluded her thread with this: “Had I seen another woman publicly share her tough decision, I know I would have been grateful to know I wasn’t alone. That’s all.”

Perhaps one of the most moving aspects of the Twitter campaign by @TwoWomenTravel is that the woman who had the abortion wasn’t alone. She had a friend by her side throughout, and through her courage and candour gained even more. In their final tweet, the two women thanked their followers and acknowledged the “secrecy, panic and guilt” that accompanies so many similar journeys: “We hope the outpouring of public support encourages more women to document their experiences, to highlight the issue and to stand with us in the battle for control over our own bodies.”

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