Interview with Goretti Horgan, 2/28/99
GH: I'm Goretti Horgan and what do you want to know about me?
MT: What group do you represent?
GH: Okay, I work wirh Alliance for Choice here in Derry. And I'm also a socialist -- I'm in the Socialist Workers' Party. And as well as that, I have a little girl of ten, who you've met. And I also work full time as a researcher. So that's me.
MT: That's a full plate. How did you get involved with Alliance for Choice -- were you there at the beginning, or did you get involved later on?
GH: I was there at the beginning. I had been involved in pro-choice politics in the South when I lived in the South. And in fact I was involved in pro-choice politics in England. I went right from university to England as a lot of Irish people do. I had my first job in England. And then was involved against the Corey bill there. And then when I came back from England I was involved in the right to choose group in Dublin, which was the first pro-choice group in Ireland ever! And in the campaign against the ammendment to the constitution.
Free Derry Corner
Then I moved to Derry, which I guess I saw as being the cockpit of the revolution -- you know, "Free Derry" -- and I sort of thought everybody went around with little fists clenched all the time. And I was really horrified to discover that not only was there not a pro-choice group, but there had been no discussion at all about abortion. It was almost as if abortion just didnât happen. I had moved up here in 1986, and at that stage, people in the South, you know little old men and little old women in the wilds of Kerry were talking about zygotes and feotuses and anicafolic pregnancies and ectopic pregnancies and all kinds of things because of all of the debates there had been around the anti-abortion ammendment to the constitution. And then you come up here and just really basic arguments hadn't been had. And then I became friendly with a lot of the people who became the first kind of right to choose group in Derry. In 1987 there was a tribunal on abortion in Belfast, and a call went out for people to come. And a couple of us went. And then when we came back we decided we should set up a right to choose group. It wasn't really a group; it was just friends really who got together to say something should be done -- like when a little bit of propaganda was needed, or when some anti-abortionists made a statement, or there was some kind of a contraversy or some kind of a crisis.
Most of our activity was actually around collecting money for women to go to England for abortions. And basically I think for the best part of ten years, yeah it was ten years, we were going around to the same women looking for teners and fivers and twenty pounds off the better off ones. And we had people phoning us from as far off as Omagh and Fermanagh asking for help and getting money together. There were doctors who had found out that we existed. We didnât have an office, we didn't have a contact phone number, it was purely an informal thing, and yet we had doctors and social workers phone us on a regular basis. We used to get very angry with them actually and tell them to go away, and that the state should find the money somewhere to find some creative way within their own budgets of doing it -- but that was how bad things were. And that's how bad things still are in a way. I guess it's just that after the best part of ten years of doing it, we started to say, "Well, really there's a running sore here, and we keep putting bandaids over this running sore, and you know we have to stop doing this. Let's sort out the sore." And thatâs why we decided to become Alliance for Choice and actually start being more activist, start going on the street, which we've been doing, and saying to people, you know you can do something, even if it's only writing a letter or going on a demonstration or whatever. And we've been lobbying politicians and really trying to up the ante a bit. We've been getting a lot of help from women in England.
MT: What are the official statistics of women who go from the North to England for abortions?
GH: Well officially there's between 1600 and 1800 that travel a year. So that works out at about 40 women a week. And that's been the same for the last 15-20 years. Thereâ' a whole other 4 or 5 hundred we reckon who go because we all know women who go and use addresses in Britain -- for two reasons. First of all because they don't want to be discovered necessarily -- maybe theyâre still living at home or something -- so they use an address in Britain. But the other reason is a maybe a more practical one. If you come from outside Britain, even though you might come from the United Kingdom, when you come from the North, if you come from outside Britain, you have to stay for 24 hours beforehand. You can't arrive on the morning of an operation. Whereas, if you come from Britain, you can. So if you use a British address, you can get an early plane on a Saturday morning and have the operation that day. So it means only having one night away from your family. So a lot of women who have a caring role -- maybe looking after an elderly parent or looking after a disabled child -- and really can't be away for very long, they have to give an address in Britain. There's also some quite creative women who have lived in Britain at some stage and have been registered with a GP in Britain. And particularly if theyâre living on benefits and donât have employment that keeps them here or any kids that keep them here, they sometimes go and spend a couple of weeks with a friend in England. So you're talking about 2,000 a women a year from here, as well as the 5 and a half thousand from the South.
Now, we've always suspected that women from both the North and the South have abortions a lot later. Just because of the hassle of getting the information in the first place, getting the money together, making travel arrangements, getting the kids looked after, getting any other responsibilities sorted, and actually getting there. And last November, we got a parliamentary question asked on our behalf about the numbers of women from Northern Ireland and the gestation of the pregnancies. And we discovered that in 1997, 19% of the women from here had had abortions after 12 weeks, and that compared with 11% being the norm in Britain. So that's nearly twice the number after 12 weeks. And there was 2.4% of women from here who had abortions after 20 weeks, compared to .7% from Britain. So that's more than three times as many women. They're small numbers, but if you think of how traumatic an abortion after 20 weeks is, you know, how pregnant a woman is when she's 20 weeks, to be kept waiting that long because you havenât got the money or because you havenât got the information, it's like an abuse of the woman really -- as well as being more physically difficult. And psychologcially more difficult for her.
Ferry to Liverpool
And we know that it is down to mainly economic circumstances. Because we've had some really upsetting experiences to be honest with you -- of women coming to us looking for help. The first meeting we had after deciding we werenât going to collect money anymore, a woman came to us who was 23 weeks pregnant -- she was actually 23 and a half weeks pregnant -- and she hadnât managed to get the money together. She was a single parent. Sheâd been saving a fiver a week since she found out she was pregnant from her single parentsâ allowance. Trying to get the money together to go for an abortion. And of course as the weeks went on the procedureâs becoming more and more expensive. And she was getting further and further away from having the right amount of money. And we just werenât able to help her. Partly because she was just so late on -- no doctor was going to give her abortion anyway at that stage -- but also because it was just so much money to be able to get together in a couple of days we wouldn't have been able to.
A friend of mine, actually somebody who babysits for me, one of her friends was pregnant -- she was also a single parent -- and she was also trying to save to go to England and she phoned. She was booked in for a pre-12 week termination and she didn't get the money together, and then she phoned to change it to 2 weeks after she'd planned -- at which stage she'd have been 13 and a half weeks pregnant. And they said, "Well of course you know if you leave it to 14 weeks it's going to be dearer." And she ended up coming to us, just looking to borrow some money. She was about to be caught in that same sort of situation if she hadnât had somebody to borrow that little bit of money from. She was already 14 weeks pregnant, and that was totally down to money. And if she hadn't of known somebody, the girl who babysits for me, if she hadn't known I was pro-choice, and hadn't asked my babysitter to ask me -- because let's be honest, asking a total stranger for a loan of money, that's not an easy thing to do -- she couldâve ended up 16 weeks, probably 18 weks pregnant.
MT: What are some of the other obstacles for women here? You've talked about having to travel, having to get the money together, but also, thereâs the sort of social baggage of being from a culture that doesn't talk much about these things. Do you think this has an impact on how late women wait before they do anything about it? Or maybe deciding not to have an abortion at all?
GH: I'm really not sure. I think in any culture actually some women just deny they're pregnant and let it go late because they just can't believe it. And I think that probably the fact that not everybody knows somebody who's open about the fact that they're pro-choice, not everybody is open about the fact that they or somebody they know has had an abortion, means that it can be quite difficult to find basic information. The impact of education, the fact that all of the schools, particularly the Catholic schools, have explicit anti-abortion education, means that a lot of people who find themselves pregnant and maybe are even suicidal because of being pregnant, donât really consider abortion as a possibility -- until maybe itâs quite late on and they're coming up to the stage that they're gonna have to decide one way or another. I know that some of the pregnancy counseling services get women coming into them whoâve known for 10-12 weeks, but they just havenât been able to face up to themselves until then.
So I think that whole culture of not talking about sex generally, and even the fact that women get pregnant, even the fact that we have the high rate of abortion that we do have, and the fact that we have the kind of high rates of teenage pregnancy that we do have, a lot of that comes down to a lack of sex education on one hand and a lack of openness about sex on the other. I mean, again, my babysitters tell me their friends -- and these are 18-20 year old women who are intelligent, who expect a certain amount in their life -- they say itâs still the case in Derry that if youâre a young woman carrying condoms, then you must be a slut, a slag, a slacker, whatever the jargon is. Because otherwise you wouldnât be carrying condoms. So they're in this sort of catch 22.
MT: So if you could just briefly describe what the situation is here in NI, legally.
GH: In 1967, abortion was legalized under some circumstances in Britain, and although NI was part of the United Kingdom, there was still a parliament at Stormont, and at that stage the question of whether or not to legalize abortion was left to the parliament at Stormont. Of course within 5 years of that, that parliament was abolished -- at the start of civil rights, the start of the troubles. So really abortion never came on the agenda here at all. So we're still working on laws that date back to 1861. And it's the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which is the main law against abortion here, and that outlaws abortion all together. And then that was followed by what in Britain was the 1929 Infant Life Preservation Act, which was passed [here] in 1945. So that's sort of how long -- it always seems to take 20 or 30 years from the rest of Britain. And really, for the last 20 odd years, you've had a situation where women in Britain have been able to access legal abortion on the health service, and women from NI, which is supposed to be part of the United Kingdom, and where really we experience the worst of the repressive legislation within the United Kingdom, weâve never had the same kinds of rights as women in Britain. And that's something that horrifies quite a lot of women here -- whether they want to be part of the United Kingdom or not. I mean, I think, within Alliance for Choice, for example, we'd have different views on what we think about the constitutional question, but one thing weâre all agreed on is that, as long as we remain part of the United Kingdom, that we should have the same rights as women throughout the rest of the UK. So I guess thatâs kind of the main legal position here.
In the last number of years, of course, the 90s, there have been a number of court cases, similar to the X case in the South. There have been at least 4 maybe 5 cases taken, mainly by health boards who have young people in their care, young women in their care who become pregnant. And need abortions. And because of the situations where these young women are in the care of the state, in order for them to leave the state, they need to get the permission of the court. And you've had very very liberal judgments from the judges here in NI whoâve basically said, for example in the case of Ms. K, a 14 year old woman who was pregnant by her boyfriend, it was consentual sex, and who said she was suicidal. It was 1993, it was the year after the X case. And I don't know, maybe she thought, "If I say I'm suicidal, I'll get the same treatment as her." She demanded an abortion, and they said she was suicidal. She was very careful to be seen punching her stomach and stuff like that. You know, 'You better give me an abortion or I'll do some damage here." And the judge said that, not only did she have the right to go to England for the abortion but that she should be able to have the abortion here. Now, for a number of reasons, which maybe have to do with the fact that the doctors who were treating her were named in the courtcase, she didn't get her abortion here. Whereas in some of the late court cases, where the doctors weren't named, they were able to get their abortions here. And there were at least 3 other cases, one of them where again a teenager had been raped, and there was a mentally disabled woman, where they were told by the courts that they would be able to have their abortions here.
So we're in this sort of ridiculous situation where the law says one thing -- you know, if you read the law, it's very very strict, women are only supposed to be able to have abortions if their lives are in danger -- while the courts are saying the same situation as in Britain should be applied here.
And I guess the difference between the North and the South is the lack of a mass movement. Because with the X case, because the court said she couldn't go to England for the abortion, there was that explosion of anger onto the streets. And when there's tens of thousands of people on the streets, then the politicians have to sit up and take notice. And there was real fear. Anyone who was in Dublin at the time -- in Dublin or Cork or Waterford, you know in the larger towns in the South -- will tell you that there was just such anger on the streets that the courts were afraid to keep Ms. X from going to England. Now there was none of that anger here. Nobody knew about Ms. K. Nobody knew there young women here in similar situations, trapped in the bureaucracy of the state. Looking to go to England. And so there was none of that mass action. There was no street agitation. And I think that maybe part of the reason that, in 1999, one of the reasons why we are where we are -- you know anyone that's calling for abortion here is seen as being very radical. And then in the South you have very respectable, you know, hospital trustees are saying that abortion sould be available on request. That's the difference -- because we didn't have that kind of explosion onto the streets at the time of the X case.
MT: Any theories about why there wasn't any explosions onto the streets? Was it in the papers to the same extent?
GH: No, it wasn't in the papers to the same extent, and that would be because of the lack of debate and campaigning around the issue. I mean you have to remember that the X case came after a whole decade of debate, of campaigning, of demonstrations, of courtcases, you know, from 1981, when the pro-life ammendment campaign got the politicians' go ahead for the referendum that would put the anti-abortion ammendment into the constitution. From then, right up until the time of the X case, abortion was front page headlines all the time. Because you had the whole campaign around whether or not to put the ammendment into the constitution. Then after that you had SPUC and the other anti-abortion groups trying to say that the ammendment meant that women didnâ' even have the right to information about abortion. You had the kind of thing like in the Dublin city libraries -- they were taking the yellow pages out of the public libraries because the yellow pages had phone numbers for abortion clinics in them. You had womenâs health books like Every Woman and Our Bodies Ourselves being taken off the shelves of public libraries because they had information about abortion. And this was driven not by the average Joe or Josephine Soap. It was being driven by anti-abortionists and fundamentalist groups who were really trying to roll back all the progress that they had made around womenâs rights before then. So that had been going on. There had been all the court cases.
We all had car stickers with the phone numbers on them, you know, everybody. There was a really big movement of openly defying the law. You had any magazine that was worth its salt, even commerical magazines, printing the phone numbers somewhere, making sure that the phone numbers were there. So it was there all the time in the South. When the X case happened, it was like, we always knew it would come to this, that some young girl whoâd been raped would end up in this kind of situation. And I think a lot of people began to realize that the people who call themselves pro-life, and who'd said that if the ammendment was put into the constitution then then theyâd build a more open and tolerant society where women who'd had unplanned pregnanices could bring up their children in dignity and with enough support and all that kind of thing -- they promised all of that and then as soon as they got the ammendment into the constitution, they still didnât turn around and look after the children who were already born. They had to go back again and again and again just to try and push back the clock, to push back the tide. I think a lot of people who had voted originally in favor of the ammendment were starting to think, "Well, how has this made things any better for children?" You know, the children already born. And, "Has this made anything any better for the women who are faced with unplanned or unwanted pregnanices?" So it was like a combination of all of those things made a difference in the South.
MT: When I was at your meeting, you were talking about whether or not you should lobby people at Westminster versus what chances youâd have once it got to the NI assembly. Do you think you could talk a little bit about that? It seems like once again womenâs issues are going to take the back seat.
GH: It's awful. I told you, I work for a children's rights group, and they promised that there was going to be more representation of young people on all the civic forums and all that. That's not happening. They're doing away with the Equal Opportunities Commission, the NI Commission for Ethnic Minorities, the organization for people with disabilities. And the Fair Employment Commission. And they're putting them all under one, the Human Rights Commssion. In an ideal world, you'd have no problems with that. But of course it's not an ideal world -- and whatâs going to happen is that it's going to be about Catholic and Protestant stuff. And women, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, theyâre going to be lost. And like I say, they'll just have no representation at all.
But I would think that one of the things thatâs kept us going over this last while and what's been optimistic for us, is that we have built some very good contacts with women in London. In the first place through the Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign, which is a campaigning group that was set up out of the Irish Women's Abortion Suport Group. The Irish Womenâs Abortion Support Group has been helping women from Ireland gong to to England for abortions for years and years now. They help women by putting them up and meeting them off the boats and on planes and just give them a friendly face really -- especially for women who've never been to London. And they decided at the time of the X case that there needed to be women in Britain who were campaigning -- again they were just getting fed up. So they became involved in the Pro-choice Alliance, which is an umbrella group for all the pro-choice groups in London, and through that weâve become involved in a group called Voice for Choice, which is another umbrella body but which lobbies parliamentarians directly and has a parliamentary subgroup. And which advises an all party pro-choice group.
And so we have pretty good access through all of this to information about exactly what's going on in Westminster, to sympathetic MPs who are willing to ask parliamentary questions for us. Now I would be the first to say, right, that change doesn't necessarily come through parliament -- unless people are fighting on the ground nothing is going to happen. But on the other hand, weâve been lacking really basic information. The information for example about later abortions. We've always guessed it and known it in our gut. But we now have the most pro-choice parliament ever,the parliament that was elected on the first of May, 1997, the Labour government. And we have MPs who are horrified to discover that the abortion act doesn't apply here. And theyâre kind of beavering away, trying to get some kind of change within Westminster. And we've assured them that, if they manage to do anything, that weâll be here to insure that, public opinon, which we know is on the side of women who need abortions, that public opinion is heard over the screams of the pro-lifers. From sort of a simple point of view, we know that any moves that are made within Westminster, weâll hear about them. So that weâll be ready with the kind of defense of the pro-choice position.
Having said that, we're faced with a government that seems to think that the best thing to do is do nothing. About any sort of situation. They've really buried their head in the sand about everyting. I mean thatâs the case in Britain as well as in Northern Ireland. Itâs made worse in NI by the fact that they have really abdicated responsibility here and said everythingâs up to the Assembly. I think that quite a lot of us feel personally betrayed -- we really welcomed a Labour government, and we thought a Labour government was going to make a difference. You know, we have the first ever woman secretary of state for NI, Mo Mowlam. She's pro-choice. Her voting records the whole way through has been pro-choice -- not just for the Î67 act but for a womanâs right to choose. She's voted twice for the extension of the abortion act to NI in opposition, as has Tony Blair. So we thought, "Great, here are people whoâre gonna do something." It's just been a real disappointment. It's almost like, "Well, that was in opposition."
MT: Do you think that that has something to do with this whole tiptoeing around issues while the peace process is being worked out?
GH: Yeah, I do think that. I think that they are unwilling to do anything that isn't to do with the peace process. For example, all of the political parties in NI are against the present education system, which is where children at the age of ten do an exam called the 11 plus, which decides what school they're going to go to when they're 11 plus. Children at the age of ten are having to sit examinations that actually decide their entire life -- because if you fail this, then the chances of you going to university are out the window. And it's a real strain on children, clearly, at the age of ten, that the class you come from decides what youâre going to do at the age of ten. I mean a lot of working class kids come on really well as they get a bit older. But children who have a lot of books at home and have tutoring -- a lot of tutoring goes on because better off parents think, "Well, if I want to make sure they get into university, I better make sure they can pass this exam when they're ten." So they get private tutors and all that. Every single party in NI is against the eleven plus. And the government still refuses to do anything about it -- because it's just hands off of anything. The Labour government is also against the eleven plus. So it's in everybody's election manifestos to do away with it, and yet childern are still being forced to take it. And just about two weeks ago, quite a few of my friends who have children did very well, but didn't get the magic mark that means they get into the grammar schools. And they're kids -- at the age of ten.
Anyway that seems like an aside but it's just sort of saying -- anything at all, it's not just that they're not willing to do anything contentitious, they're not willing to do anything. Except deal with the peace process. And actually I think it's a yet another kind of colonial foil in a way -- to say, "We have nothing to do with this, you know, weâre the honest brokers here, weâre just trying to help you , you and your tribal enmities, get yourselves sorted out." I mean because in relation to the abortion question, actually, a lot of us who come from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds think it could be a really good thing for the peace process -- to introduce an issue which would divide society in a different way -- so instead of being divided along Catholic-Protestant-Nationalist-Unionist terms, people would be divided between people who want an open and a tolerant society which is pluralist, which isn't based on religious views and the people who want to keep NI back in the 20s. And it would actually help the peace process. But the government would argue, Mo Mowlam would argue that -- "The peace process, we can't do that."
MT: That's a really excellent point though -- to get people worked up around any other issue might be a brilliant idea.
GH: Lots of people have thought it. It's getting it on the agenda. That's another thing. We work really hard -- for example when we got the information about the later abortions, we put out a press statement about the parliamentary questions that were asked -- really embarrassing questions. We got a question asked of the minister for health was he going to issue guidelines directing GPs and consulting obstetricians and gynecologists here to refer women who need abortions and who qualify for abortions under the terms of the 1967 act to hospitals in those parts of the UK where abortion is legal. Because you know, say you need a hip replacement and theyâre not doing them in your local hospital --sometimes they fly you over to Scotland or they fly you over to Liverpool on the NHS. And we were just saying, "Ok, we can't get an abortion here. Fly us to someplace where we can get one on the NHS." And he just said, "No! We have no intention of issuing such guidelines." And we've put out statements and gotten onto journalists and said, "Look, this is going on," and have been trying to stir things up a bit. And it's just like, nobody's interested in anything except decommissionsing, the Assembly, the Executive, and you know, it's just politicians playing at the old game really.
MT: Of the major political parties here, are any of them pro-choice or have they put forward any platforms about abortion?
GH: Well there were ten parties involved in negotiating the Belfast agreement. And of those two, the PUP (the Progressive Unionist Party) and the UDP (the Ulster Democtatic Party), have pro-choice positions. The PUP are for a woman's right to choose. They think abortion should be available on the request of the woman on the NHS. The UDP is for the extension of the 1967 act. Sinn Fein has a position which is kind of somewhere in between -- they're against abortion on demand. They're against abortion being available too easily, what theyâd call too easily. But they are for abortion being available if a womanâs mental or physical well-being or health is at risk. So that's essentially the kind of provisions that are available in the 1967 act. Under the 1967 act, abortion remains illegal unless a woman's mental or physcial health is at risk. So Sinn Fein's position sounds as if it might actually allow for the extension of the 1967 act. Although they say that they won't support or campaign for the extension of the 1967 act because it's a British law! I have to say that personally -- this isn't a view of Alliance for Choice but my own personally -- I think that that's actually them copping out. Because they campaign for better dole, they campaign for better disability allowances, they campaign for all kinds of things that are British laws, and I just think they're saying this because they don't want to lose votes. And the Alliance Party say that it's up to the individual conscience. But quite a number of their members say, "Well, I don't think that abortion should be used as birth control," and you think, "Oh yeah, how many women do?" But that they think abortion should be available under a whole lot of circumstances, including social grounds. Lord Alderdice, when he was the leader of the party, said that he thought abortion should be available, pretty much under the terms of the '67 act.
So it's actually only the two major parties, the SDLP and the official Unionist party (the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble's party) that are opposed. Now the SDLP is basically a Catholic party in the way that Sinn Fein isn't. The SDLP is the party of the Catholic middle classes. Somebody said that the Catholic church is the SDLP at prayer. And I think that's probably right. Or I guess the other way of putting it is that the SDLP is the Catholic church in politics. So from our point of view, the most opposition to the extension of the '67 act would be put up by the SDLP and of course by Ian Paisley's party, the DUP. Now I have to say that I personally know SDLP members, including Assembly members and including people who are on the executive of the SDLP, who are pro-choice. So there's a certain amount of careerism as well. Within the official Unionist party there are individuals again who one knows to be pro-choice. And a number of their politicians have said, "I think abortion should be avilable under some circumstances." Even the Reverend Martin Smith has said that abortion should be available under some circumstances. So there are some modernizers in the Unionist party, and I think if there were a kind of a real debate about the issue -- you know, this notion that the British government peddles that everybody here is against abortion, itâs clearly just not true.
MT: Have there been any kind of opinion polls done? What would your sense be as to how the population would react to a referendum? Do you think that opinion here has shifted, at least in the time that youâve lived in the North?
GH: I definitely think it's shifted in the last number of years. In the 90s I think it shifted considerably. I'm not quite sure why that was. I think the X case had a big impact here -- I mean ideas donât stop at borders. And the X case had a lot of people up here saying, "Well, what do I really think?" I mean, if you think about it, you have a situation with the X case where a whole lot of people who used to think that they were anti-abortion had to kind of question that, and the minute that they said that they thought this 14 year old rape victim had a right to an abortion, that opened the door for them rethinking the whole issue. And I think that happened here as well. I mean at the time of the X case in the South, we went out here on the streets with petitions saying, "Let her go," and we had people queuing up to sign those petitions, queuing up.
I think another thing that helped change things was that at the start of the 90s, before the X case in the South, it must have been about 1990 or '91, the Brook Advisory Centre opened a centre in Belfast. And it opened that centre up at the invite of the local health board. And the local health board was paying some money towards it. And of course the fundamentalists went mad because the Brook Advisory Centre gives information about sexuality, about birth control. It doesnât actually give information about abortion in NI, but in Britain it would give information about abortion to young people. And while they target young people from 16 to 24, they do talk to people who are younger than 16 who are sexually active. Sensible I'd have thought. I'd be delighted that my daughter would have enough sense to go and get decent information and get birth control if she was sexually active. But some people seem to think better not. And there was a huge outcry, and there was a really big campaign in support of Brook Advisory Centre. Paisley's lot though said they would picket it for their entire life -- and actually they do still occasionally turn up to picket the place, but there's only 4 or 5 of them, andthey can't sustain it. And that campaign really opened up the reality of NI society, and you had a situation where on the one hand you had the official Unionists and the SDLP, the old men really of the old regime, and of course Paisleyâs lot. Paisley's lot are every bit as bad as the Catholic church -- Ian Paisley and the Pope have so much in common. So you had all those old men. And then on the other side you had demonstrations of hundreds of young people. Both Catholic and Protestant. On the streets of Belfast. Saying, "We have a right to this. We want a different sort of society. Why do you think we leave in our thousands? Why do you think young people leave NI and donât come back? It's not just because of the troubles, which is what people always said it was because of. It's also because you know this society is so damn repressive, and we're just not having it anymore."
And so I think there have been a lot of changes like that. And then there was the X case. And I think that really, there's the kind of thing where more and more people know somebody whoâs had an abortion. We reckon, if you add up all of the women whoâve gone to England over the last 30 yrs, there are at least 50 thousand women from NI. And NI only has a million and a half people. So 50, 000 women -- and if they've each just told two or three people, thatâs like a quarter of the population whoâve known someone whoâs gone to England to have an abortion. And I think just all of that just kind of helps change things.
And then I mean, it's just the reality of people's lives. People here live the same kinds of lives as they live in Britain or in America or somewhere else. Young people are having sex well before 16 -- about half of them have had sexual intercourse before they're 16. Most of the rest of them have had sexual intercourse by the time that they're 19 or whatever. Sex is no longer as seen... as being all that special I guess! It's seen as being something thatâs for fun, whereas traditionally it had been seen as something that was a big deal. And itâs just not a big deal anymore. Sorry, it's not a big deal anymore, and obviously, people are having to change their attitudes to some of the consequences of sexual activity. And one of the consequences of heterosexual activity is pregnancy. And it can't all be wanted pregnancy. And I think that part of the shift in attitudes towards abortion is because of the shift toward sex generally. And if you think that sex is as much about fun as it is about committment or anything like that -- and clearly most people these days do think like that -- you know you're going to have to say, you're not going to able to continue every unplanned consequence of that seuxal activity.
So I guess it's kind of the combination of loads of things like that that has brought the change in attitude. And there has been a huge change in attitude. There have been a whole lot of surveys done in NI about people's attitudes toward abortion. And I think if you went out on the street with your microphone and said, "Do you think abortion should be legal in NI?" a lot of people would say no. But if you went out and you said, "Do you think that a woman who really feels that she can't continue a pregnancy should be allowed to have an abortion?" they'd say, "Yeah, well I suppose if she's determined." You know, so, it depends on how you ask the question. So if you went out and you said, "Do you think the abortion act should be extended?" they'd say, "Oh, I don't know, it's very easy for them to get abortions there," and that they're having them for frivolous reasons and that sort of thing. But if you went out and then read out what the provisions on the '67 act are, which are if a woman's mental or physical health is in dangered or whatever, they'd go, "Of course." And there'd be no question about it. And actually we -- the offical figures, both of the social attitudes survey, which is a government sponsored survey, and of Ulster Marketing surveys, show that 3 out of 4 people here think abortion should be available under the kind of provisions that you have with the '67 act. Now we have sort of seen some very clear evidence of that.
I confess that although we quoted these statsitics for years, we didn't always think they were true in some ways -- because we had no experience of it. Our experience of talking about abortion was always silence and a lot of people looking at you kind of funny. And just recently, over the past year or so, since weâve decided that we need to get more into campaigning, we've been on the streets and on a number of occasions -- well, since the 30th anniversary of the passing of the act in England lots of us either as Alliance for Choice or as different organizations have been on the streets with petitions calling for the act, with letters to Mo Mowlam, and to various ministers calling for the extension of the act. And the response we've got has been brilliant. Again, people queuing to sign petitions, saying, "It's a disgrace that itâs never been extended here." A lot of people have said, "I don't really agree with abortion, but neither do I think it's right that women who have no money should be put in a situation where they have to spend so much money on going to England when it should be available on the health service." A lot of people saying, "I don't argee with later abortion, but I think if the act was available on the NHS then they wouldnât be having them so late." And people being really logical and sensible about the whole thing.
And another interesting little statistic from our point of view -- we had a couple of stalls where we'd set up over lunch hour in a shopping mall -- and 4 of us spending 40 minutes had an average of 60 to 70 letters signed to Mo Mowlam in just that period. So it's a lot of letters in such a short period -- we were having to stop people and explain to them and ask them to sign letters and put in their address, sign the letter, put it into an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope -- so that's the kind of response that we've had. So clearly there is much more of a groundswell of support than maybe we realized until we started going on the streets. So weâre now very glad that we've started to do street campaigning because we actually are the majority -- we're the silent majority, and in fact the people who are anti-choice are in fact the minority.
MT: It's getting late so I'll try to wrap this up. I'm asking everyone that I've interviewed about their relationship to their first name. So do you know who you were named for?
GH: Yes, I was named for St Maria Goretti who was a Catholic saint who was canonized in the 50s. Actually almost anyone who's called Goretti you can tell that they're in their forties because she was canonized in the 50s so it was just around then. I've got five brothers, all older than me. And I was expected to be a boy, and they only had a boy's name ready for me. I was born on the 5th of July, and her name day is the 6th of July. My mum didn't know what to call me, so she called me after Mary Goretti. And she had a enough sense to know that Maria, while it's a beautiful name, that it wasn't that unusual a name, so she called me Goretti. And I've always had a real love/hate relationship with it.
MT: Why is that?
GH: Well, on the one hand, if you say to somebody, "I met Goretti," they're not going to say, "Goretti who?" You know, the chances are they don't know any other Gorettis. So it's quite good from that point of view. On the other hand, because Maria Goretti was a kind of an anti-feminist icon of the Catholic church, a young woman who was supposed to have died protecting her viriginity, died rather than lose her virginity to a rapist, and this was held up as what young Catholic women should do, I guess Iâve been rebelling against it ever since really.
MT: And the last question would be, are there any women in history or myth or your own family or local politics or national politics who inspired you along the way to do political work? To get involved in pro-choice work or other work. Were there any icons that you had, any role models?
GH: I guess actually, in a funny way, a lot of my role models, women who inspired me, were actually American, so this is a bit odd I realize. I think that I grew up without any real kind of people that inspired me -- the only woman that would've had any relevance to me when I was growing up would've been Bernadette Devlin. And I remember looking at the tv when she was talking, and she was good and sassy and I liked that, and I thought, "Wow, she's brilliant." But then when the troubles broke out and things got really heavy, you know, I didn't really know what to think. And I was still quite young -- I would've only been a teenager and I really didnât know what to think. Because living in the South, funny enough, there was sort of this attitude of, "They're all troublemakers up in the North." Now that I live here I know theyâre not.
And when I've been reading history, women like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Mother Jones and all those union organizers in America, I thought were just absolutely brilliant. They were both standing up for women and standing up for their class, and that was a real powerful combination I thought. And they were women who lived really independent lives -- and who left their husbands and looked after their children only as much as it made sense to do -- I know that sounds weird but didn't kinda see their role as the role of wife and mother. There were very few role models here in Ireland of women who didntt see their whole lives as being wives and mothers. I guess that I always kind of thought of myself as a bit of a troublemaker really. And there were very few women troublemakers. I didn't see people like Countess Markievicz and other people like that as being an inspiration for me -- maybe because, I dunno, maybe because they were too close or somethng like that, I'm not sure. I saw those American women as just being less respectable and more in your face or something. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the one that I thought, "I'd love to be like her. I'd love to be able to get up and just sort of inspire people." So, sorry for not having any more local ones.
MT: No, that was fantastic. I think you probably do get up and inspire people actually. I have a feeling that you do.
GH: Well, I do think that about her. She used to have these wonderful ways of explaining things to people--
MT: I don't know anything about her
GH: She turned out to be a Stalinist in later years. But in her early years -- that song we were talking about, Bread and Roses, she was involved in a lot of those strikes. She was organizing women workers. And she was explaining things to all these different groups, like Germans and French, all these different immigrant groups, you know, she was making sure that they were all kept together and explaing, for example, you know the Wobblies, the IWW, explaining that, "The boss tells us that we're women, we're men, we're Jews, we're Blacks, we're Lithuanians, well the IWW says we should be like this [Goretti raises a fist] so we can punch the bosses!" So you can see how, if you had just arrived from Italy or some place and you hadn't a clue what these people were talking about, you would've understood that language -- that universal language.
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Fore more info on abortion rights in Ireland, see the pro-choice resources listed on the links page.
For writing about Northern Ireland, women's rights and abortion rights by Goretti Horgan, see www.lpi.org.