‘We’ve all been called murderers’: Three Families and the truth about abortion in Northern Ireland

“Waiting,” we are told in the BBC drama Three Families, “is all there is to it.” That intense, fraught, prolonged suspension of time, during which everyday life somehow has to go on, is one of the main themes of the two-part series. A young woman longing for a baby counts the seconds aloud while she waits for the line on the test to tell her whether she is pregnant. Another, who has been interviewed by the police after they learned she had “procured” abortion pills for her teenage daughter, waits for years to find out if she will be jailed. A happily pregnant woman, who has been told there are concerns about the foetus, sits in a consultant’s waiting room with her husband for what seems like a lifetime. The news they will get will either shatter their dreams or give them hope.

The best television drama can unpick the locks of dogma and bring empathy and compassion to difficult themes. Three Families does this with the sensitive issue of abortion in Northern Ireland. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act carried a maximum of life imprisonment for carrying out an abortion, and the abortion-related parts of the act remained in force in Northern Ireland until 2019 – half a century after the 1967 Abortion Act became law in the rest of the UK. The drama, based on real-life testimonials from the past decade, reimagined through the stories of Hannah, Rosie and Theresa, shows the human impact of Northern Ireland’s law on terminations on those who have found themselves nightmarishly entangled in its cruel excesses.

I am Northern Irish, and my own first memory of contemplating abortion was as a frightened schoolgirl in the 1970s, posting an ink bottle full of pee in a padded envelope to an address in England. A few years later, I was one of the founders of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre. Now, as a journalist, I frequently write about feminist issues. One of the campaigners in the show says, with cheerful stoicism, that she has been at this for decades. Whether we have advocated for abortion, helped friends or family to go “across the water”, or had abortions ourselves, we have all been called murderers.

In Three Families, we see how women in crisis were told there was nothing to be done, that they should get on with their lives and pregnancies in the “normal” way. As if it were normal to be 15 and pregnant to a boy who leaves bruises on your neck. Or to carry to term a baby you know will not survive birth. Or to have shouting protesters shoving horrific pictures of mutilated babies in your face as you go in to a clinic. Or to have doctors afraid to even provide information. Thousands upon thousands of women in Northern Ireland, no matter what the circumstances of their pregnancy, have been denied the right to a medical procedure that is available on the NHS to women in other parts of the supposedly United Kingdom.

The show skilfully weaves music and silence into its narrative, expressing the pain and loneliness that crisis pregnancy brings. It captures in fierce, hurt dialogue how the criminalisation of abortion invades every aspect of women’s lives and relationships. It is clear that the writer, Gwyneth Hughes, and the director, Alex Kalymnios, have listened carefully to the people at the heart of these stories. They are dramatised with a deeply moving authenticity.

Until recent years, the main Northern Irish political parties all opposed the extension of the 1967 Act. The dominant parties are Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP). Although it is still not fully pro-choice, Sinn Féin has liberalised its stance. The DUP remains militantly anti-abortion, describing it as a “red line issue”. The main Christian churches attempt to influence the politicians with their anti-abortion dogmas. After an intervention by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2015, the high court in Belfast ruled that the law breached human rights, but the following year a bid to introduce abortion on limited grounds failed. The executive collapsed in 2017, and was not reinstated until 2020.

In 2018, the UN called for the abortion provision of the 1861 law to be repealed. In Three Families, a grandmother whose daughter has not confided in her for fear of her judgment, instead shows compassion. “I know the world has changed,” she says. That year, a poll conducted in Northern Ireland found 65% of those surveyed believed abortion should not be a crime.

In 2019, a woman from Belfast, Sara Ewart, who had been denied an abortion in tragic circumstances, won a high court case that paved the way for change. This came through an amendment to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill, which the Labour MP Stella Creasy steered through parliament. The fundamentalists are still railing against the new law, and the North’s Ulster Unionist party minister for health has refused to commission the services required to put it into effect.

Meanwhile, women in Northern Ireland are still waiting.

Three Families concludes tonight at 9pm on BBC One


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