Three families follows the true stories of women who have been affected by the criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, tackling the barriers faced and the misinformation which makes getting an abortion so difficult, even in the most tragic circumstances.
We’re introduced to Orla Healy first, a fifteen year old who discovers that she is pregnant to an abusive partner. She confides in her mother, Theresa, who finds herself conflicted because of her personal religious beliefs. She wants to do what is right for her daughter and eventually purchases safe but illegal abortion pills online. For this, she is dragged through the threat and uncertainty of a six year legal challenge, unable to tell those around her about what had happened.
The second story focuses on Hannah Kennedy who struggled to conceive and subsequently has to come to terms with a fetal abnormality diagnosis. Hannah faced the difficulties in getting basic information about abortion procedures locally, and is told she had missed “the deadline” for a termination in England. Realising how wrong this is, and how often it has happened to others, she gets involved in pro-choice activism.
The final story is that of Rosie Fortress who struggles with chronic health conditions and received a diagnosis of a fetal abnormality that was incompatible with life. Despite regulations at the time allowing abortions on the grounds of grave risk to maternal health (including mental health), the law was sufficiently vague, leaving clinicians afraid of prosecution and unable to provide Rosie with the care she needed. It raises the issue poignantly put by Rosie to her clinician: if she doesn’t meet the requirements for abortion, then who does?
Whilst Three Families had the potential to be an in-depth analysis of the consequences of church and state interference in reproductive healthcare, politics and religion were often only on the periphery in these stories. Instead the women’s personal experiences are centralised.
The campaign to repeal the 8th, south of the border, doesn’t feature in their stories, for example. This may simply be an oversight on the directors behalf, but it serves as a reminder that abortion rights may never appear on someone’s radar until it affects them, and why campaigns to raise awareness are so important.
The stories that were told during Repeal are similar to those in the series, and have changed the narrative around abortion, arguably an important trigger for decriminalisation north of the border. It should not have taken the voices of women baring their souls to win abortion rights, especially when they carry the shame that others have placed upon them, but if ever a representation of those stories was needed to be beamed into TV screens across the North, it’s now, as abortion services continue to be denied.
The series portrays that shame attached to abortion seekers, which can be greater than the fear of being prosecuted. It exposes the hierarchy of ‘good vs bad’ abortions, where the Orlas of society are seen as less deserving of abortion services than the Hannahs or the Rosies, because they haven’t suffered enough or their plight isn’t obvious enough.
This stigma has forced women and pregnant people to be silent for too long. One can only hope that politicians who currently have the power to change the law were left squirming in their seats.
Despite the varied socio-economic backgrounds shown in their stories, Three Families accurately depicts how abortion restrictions create “one law for the rich and another for the poor”.
Working class women have been hit the hardest by Stormont/Westminster cuts to socio-economic support, namely the introduction of a two child benefit cap and universal credit. Subsequently it is these women who are also more likely to be impacted by restrictive abortion laws and criminalisation.
And while pregnant people from the north of Ireland can now access abortion services on the NHS if they travel to England, this is a recent victory. For years, they were forced to accumulate money and funds were drummed up for people’s sisters, mothers and cousins. Thankfully, Abortion Support Network have provided funding to help ease the financial burden of the travel itself, but it should not be the only option available.
Three Families also covered the lack of education and misinformation surrounding abortion. Theresa isn’t aware that the criminalisation of abortion included the purchase and use of pills such as mifepristone and misoprostol. Hannah and Rosie found it difficult to navigate the restrictions and requirements in order to gain access to abortion services.
A lack of information about abortion services has a real, tangible impact on the lives of people who need healthcare, especially those who are vulnerable. This is something which campaign groups have highlighted for a long time but even after decriminalisation, it can be difficult just to be signposted in the right direction.
There is a false perception that abortions are readily available in the North following decriminalisation by Westminster in 2019. Of course, no one should understate the instant impact of decriminalisation in allowing access safe abortion pills online without facing prosecution.
But making abortion legal doesn’t make it fully accessible. Women and pregnant people still have no access to abortion beyond 9 weeks and 6 days because the Health Minister, Robin Swann shamefully and repeatedly refused to commission abortion services.
The most prominent critics of bringing abortion services into line with the rest of the UK, or accepting decriminalisation from Westminster, are the DUP. Most notably Edwin Poots, the newly instated leader of the DUP and former Health Minister, stated that he would do everything to ensure that abortion services were heavily regulated after a Marie Stopes clinic was opened in 2012. Sheer hypocrisy from a party who decries regulatory divergence resulting from Brexit.
No commissioned services means no accessible public health information being provided by the Department of Health and no funds being allocated for staff, training or resources. The current early medical abortion services are provided by committed healthcare staff despite threadbare resources and can only be accessed through Informing Choices NI – a sexual and reproductive health charity.
We are still unable to obtain early medical abortion services in local healthcare facilities, leaving those in mostly rural areas without access. Several health trusts have completely ceased provision of early medical abortion services making abortion access a postcode lottery. Due to the pressure on other Trusts, it has left people unsure if they will ever be referred to another Trust or if they will have to face travelling to England during a pandemic to seek essential healthcare.
COVID has undoubtedly exacerbated the existing barriers to accessing safe abortions, such as the uncertainty of migrant status, caring commitments, coercive control, and the means to travel. The rest of the and Ireland introduced telemedicine to tackle these barriers. The North is once again left behind and women and pregnant people are required to weigh up the risks of travelling during a pandemic, which they are told to do despite regulations, or the small matter of hotels and flights being closed and cancelled!
There is a characterisation of our local politicians only able to agree with each other when it comes to criminalising abortion. It’s not hard to see why. In 2008, leaders of the main parties wrote to Westminster claiming to represent “the pro-life majority of the North” contrary to surveys such as the 2008 NI Life and Times survey reporting that the majority of respondents supported abortion in cases of rape or fatal fetal abnormalities.
As recently as last month, the DUPs Paul Givan brought a Bill to prevent abortion access on the grounds of Severe Fetal Impairment. If enacted, this bill would breach human rights, and would block legislation for abortion in line with the 2018 CEDAW report reccomendations. Yet members of each of the main parties voted for the amendment, while Sinn Féin abstained despite an attempt by their party to portray themselves as defenders of rights.
The Department of Health’s failure to provide women and pregnant people with information on legal abortion services also emboldens anti-abortion protesters. They’ve set up rogue “crisis pregnancy” services which seek to prevent abortions, under the guise of providing help for those who need one.
Anti-choice rhetoric is depicted in Three Families, though what’s spouted is quite palatable compared to what families, pregnant people, and health care workers are continuously subjected to outside health care clinics. The presence of such protestors has led to the district council of Derry City and Strabane, as well as Newry, Mourne, and Down passing motions in support of safe access zones.
The drive to restrict abortion in the corridors of power, and the failure of ‘progressive’ MLAs to challenge it, allows the perception that abortion should be restricted to permeate. This is out of step with the majority of our communities, and damaging for people who need access to basic reproductive healthcare.
As Goretti Horgan has rightly said: “recognition of abortion as a civil right affirms a woman’s personhood and autonomy, a social right to abortion underpins these foundations for her participation in social, economic and public or political life.”
Three Families can be viewed as a tragic family drama but central to the series is the real life experiences of those who have been subject to Stormont’s role in exporting tragedy. It is essential viewing for those who continue to deny us our rights, or those who have never experienced the trauma that the current law has created for too many.
Stormont’s utter failure to recognise our autonomy has led Westminster, the body responsible for ensuring human rights are upheld, to enact legislation which would give the Secretary of State the power to do so.
This has been welcomed by reproductive justice activists but we know our work is not yet done. We don’t trust Stormont or Westminster to deliver the services we need – because their rotten history of exporting our tragedy has taught us better.
It will take another fight to win free, safe, legal, local abortion services which give us the right to make a choice about our lives, which is right for our circumstances. Thankfully, another lesson from history is that we are well up for that fight.