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22nd Nov 2019

Martyrs – What price do women have to pay when we ask them to share their stories?

Ellen Coyne

Vicky Phelan BBC documentary

The women won it. 

As the results of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment rolled in, campaigners and politicians and journalists all praised the women; “brave” women and “bereaved” women who “shared” their stories. Even in countries where abortion isn’t a crime, there is still a stigma around talking about terminating a pregnancy. In Ireland, women who had travelled for abortion services effectively sacrificed their privacy during the referendum so that they could plead with the public to not let what happened to them, happen to someone else. 

“The women who shared their stories” were effusively thanked by all the important people who were in the spotlight on the day of the referendum result. It felt like a joyous day. 

But watching the results from her home on the outskirts of Waterford city, Claire Cullen-Delsol felt “absolutely no happiness.” 

“I was relieved, and then so angry,” Ms Cullen-Delsol, 35, said. 

Ms Cullen-Delsol, a mother of three and a communications professional, had told and re-told her own story countless times throughout the campaign. In 2015, she found out at 22 weeks that a baby girl she was expecting had no medical chance of surviving the pregnancy. Abortion was banned in almost all circumstances in Ireland at the time, including when doctors have said the pregnancy has no chance of surviving. With two other children at home, Claire could not manage to travel for a termination so she had to spend a painful month waiting for the baby – which she and her husband Wayne had named Alex – to die inside her. She was desperate to make sure no other woman had to go through the same thing. Claire ended up successfully campaigning to change Ireland’s abortion laws. But this involved what she felt was her being “wheeled out to cry;” put under pressure to repeatedly tell her story to national and international media, to committees of politicians and to strangers in public meetings. 

If Ireland had been making itself more attentive to women’s stories, the referendum on the Eighth Amendment was the apex of this. But a personal story is a very precious thing, and expecting people to share one – or making doing so a condition of reform – is a big ask. 

While the reward to society of having women willing to sacrifice their own stories in favour of change are obvious, the price paid by those individuals isn’t always as clear.

When Claire realised on May 26 the referendum had been won by such a landslide, she felt deflated. 

“I thought, we probably didn’t need to do that at all. If people felt this way all the time, why did we have to go through all this?

Alex died inside Claire on September 23, 2015. Claire and her family decided to plant a tree in her memory shortly afterwards. Claire knew at the time that she wanted to “do something” about Ireland’s anti-abortion laws, and she discussed it with her and her partner’s parents after they planted the tree.

She ended up joining Termination for Medical Reasons, a group of Irish families who have been affected by a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality. 

Politicians told TFMR that it would be easier for ministers and TDs to come out in favour of abortion reform ahead of the referendum if people heard stories like Claire’s. “It was a huge expectation, a huge burden,” Claire said. 

Telling her story publicly was one thing, but it was another thing altogether to do it as part of a referendum campaign. Claire said she felt under pressure to dig up the worst memories of her pregnancy with Alex, to try to convince people that the law needed to be reformed and that they needed to vote Yes.

“The normal order of things is that you experience something really traumatic, but over time you forget the details – they blur. You heal, and that’s how you heal. You let those details blur. And that’s the kindest thing to do,” she said.

“But we couldn’t, we had to keep reminding ourselves of the worst parts of it. I’d read through text messages and diaries and everything, just to try to refresh the worst of it for myself, so that I could show it to everybody else and say: ‘this is how bad it is.’ And then hope it was bad enough to change things for the next woman. But I should have been moving on.”

The fact that reform would come down to a popular vote meant it was hard to say no to anything. Claire said she kept worrying that the next event would be the difference between winning and losing the referendum. At the time of the referendum campaign, Claire was well into her fourth pregnancy – which was her first since she had lost Alex in 2015. 

Her final campaign event was a public meeting in a hotel in Waterford days before the vote, with a local TD and some prominent members of the Together for Yes campaign. The day of the event, Claire was sitting on the stairs of her family home. She was on the phone to a friend, and she told her about the meeting. Her friend asked Claire how she was, and Claire burst into tears. 

“And I said, I’m so scared. I am so scared, I’m just so afraid to go into this meeting. What am I going to face? Who’s going to be there? What am I going to have to do? I just felt so vulnerable, and so trapped,” Claire said. 

“That night I sat on a stage, pregnant and on crutches and so sore, and told the story and sobbed again. I just felt like a piece of meat at that point. Out of control of everything.”

She hated the one dimensional version of herself that she saw in the media. Her intelligence, her sense of humour, her personality, her love for her other children weren’t afforded any space in stories which Claire dryly described as being about a “full-time bereaved mother.”

There was no room for nuance. Claire was too afraid to talk about some of the rare happy moments she’d had with Alex after she was still-born, because she was afraid it would be used against her by the No campaign. 

“I was afraid that would give ammunition to tear me apart. It did take away from the closeness that I felt, even to Alex at the time. I kept having to describe it as the tragedy, and this torture,” she said. 

“I can think of her now with happiness and with joy, but if you Google me it’s like I’m trapped in that nightmare still.” 

She also felt pressured not to seem like she was coping too well with what had happened with Alex, because she was worried the public wouldn’t think what she’d gone through was bad enough to merit voting Yes. 

“We had to be demonstrably fucked up by what we’d gone through, we couldn’t just be logical and intelligent about the whole thing. Because obviously then it hadn’t affected us badly enough,” Claire said. 

She said women were being re-traumatised by telling their stories, “becoming martyrs for the cause.”

TFMR was credited by Simon Harris, the health minister, with helping to win the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. There was huge interest in the tragic stories of women who had had to travel because their pregnancy had no chance of surviving. In these stories, the words “wanted pregnancies” were often stressed and repeated. Claire said she noticed that there was less focus on what she called “normal abortions,” where a woman wanted to terminate a pregnancy because she didn’t want to be pregnant. 

Claire said she felt that TFMR’s stories were focused on as the women had wanted to be pregnant, and wanted to be mothers. 

“Freud would have had a field day with the Madonna/Whore thing that went on during that campaign. Jesus Christ,” she said. 

Women who had terminated a pregnancy which had not been clearly diagnosed with a fatal condition were also erased completely, because it wasn’t perceived as being electorally popular to talk about terminations for non-fatal abnormalities. Anti-abortion activists were willing to seizing on anything that could be twisted into the suggestion that pregnancies diagnosed with certain disabilities would be terminated in significant rates.

But there was huge media interest in TFMR. Claire estimates that TFMR must have been asked about 25 times over the course of the campaign to let journalists follow a couple on their journey to England, to terminate a pregnancy which had no chance of surviving. One couple had agreed to let a reporter come with them, but TFMR talked them out of it. 

“It may have been the quickest way to get a referendum, or the best way to get a Yes, but nobody should have had to pay that price,” Claire said. 

“I was like, this will kill someone. A woman is going to die because somebody has tried to do this to her. It will end a marriage, it will end a life. It will probably win us the referendum, no problem, but not at that cost.” 

Claire said there was some “salivating” over her story, because she hadn’t been able to travel and had not had an abortion. She was an example of what it was like for a woman to follow the spirit of the Eighth Amendment. 

During the difficult campaign, she depended on a group of women in TFMR who were all going through similar issues. One woman spent thousands of euro of her own money travelling around the country trying to go to as many public meetings as possible. Some women would be asked to do major interviews on TV or in national newspapers, and then left to feel “completely dropped” afterwards.

“There was no aftercare,” Claire said. “That was a big thing. I think there needs to be something.”

Because these stories were told as part of a referendum campaign and not in isolation, the individual women came under major scrutiny from those who were against abortion reform. Claire developed a “pathological” habit of responding to all of the online abuse she was getting. She thought if people really understood what had happened to her, then they couldn’t possibly vote No. She wanted people to confirm that what she’d gone through was wrong. Claire said she read every nasty comment that people sent her, and would often reply before blocking the abusive account.

“I was so desperate,” she said. “I needed everybody to say ‘you don’t deserve this.’”

For Claire, the process of having to repeat this sad story in a short, accessible way over and over again made her feel like a “performing monkey.” In the end, the process of speaking out publicly was almost as hard on her and her family as losing Alex was. 

“Our marriage barely survived it. I don’t think that would be a shock to anyone that we got over the bereavement much easier than we did the campaigning,” Claire said. 

She’s proud of what she did, but it was incredibly difficult for her. 

“I do sometimes wish I had just let someone else do it.”

The perceived wisdom is that women who shared their stories helped to secure modern reproductive rights for Ireland. But when the negative consequences of the Eighth Amendment were so well-known for so long, it is at least worth asking if those women should have had to do tha

The same could be said for sexual crime. Ireland’s rape crisis centres are under-resourced, as are Sexual Assault Treatment Units. Rape is the second most serious crime on the statute books, and while there’s been an international movement encouraging people to come forward it has not been matched with an increase in rape crisis services.

It’s natural that personal stories will always attract more interest or power for the general public. Speaking publicly can also be majorly cathartic and empowering for those who choose to, but it comes with some risks.

Dominique was 24 when she was raped by Keith Hearn in a hotel in Blanchardstown in 2015. Dominique is a gamer, and had been volunteering at a gaming conference when she was locked into a room and attacked by Hearn. He later told gardaí that he had been rejected by another woman before he attacked Dominique, and had had “anger flowing through him.” Hearn, from Allenton Drive, Tallaght, Dublin, was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2017. 

Hearn was well-known in the gaming community, so Dominique decided to waive her anonymity as a victim to make sure that her attacker was named. 

“I was expecting to get his name out, and then keep a few newspapers and send them to the houses nearby when he gets out. That’s all I was planning on doing,” she said. 

But because her name and picture could be used, there was significant media attention on Dominique. The day that Hearn was sentenced, she got a “bit of a harsh reality check” about what this meant. Dominique was willing to talk about being raped – the worst thing that ever happened to her – to as many people as possible because she had a genuine desire to try to bring some good from something so awful. But then she learned that certain broadcasters were only interested in her story if she spoke to them exclusively. That’s normal practice in the media, but it felt very personal to Dominique when it was her life story. 

“It was very cold. It really reminded you that you‘re not really a person, you’re just a news story,” she said. 

“I know how it works now.” 

Since she was raped, Dominique has gone through misery. She suffers from serious anger problems, and is still experiencing flashbacks of being raped four years on from the attack. She has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s hard for her to keep a job, and her relationships have suffered. When I meet her in a coffee shop in Letterkenny, she explains that she likes to sit with her back to the wall so that nobody can sneak up behind her. 

“Like, that’s what combat veterans do?!” she laughed. 

Dominique told me that the one good thing she has pulled from the tatters of the crime is advocacy. After she was raped, Dominique had to travel over 80km to the sexual assault treatment unit (SATU) in Mullingar, because Dublin’s only unit at the Rotunda hospital was closed that day. The same unit was closed 20 times in one month last year, because of low staffing numbers. 

Because she had been orally raped, Dominique couldn’t have anything to drink in case she destroyed evidence. She couldn’t go to the toilet, for the same reason. She used her case to advocate for better resources for SATU, and succeeded in helping to lobby the government to carry out a review of the units and increase funding. But it still isn’t enough, and Dominique finds it hard to direct media attention to the issue. 

“Nobody cares,” she said. 

Whenever she was interviewed about SATUs, journalists would often want Dominique to talk in some detail about the horrific details of the crime again. 

“There was a couple of interviews where I said I didn’t want to go into what happened to me, I want to talk about what I’m doing now – and they didn’t want to know,” she said. 

Dominique seems conscious about how much currency her voice has, and she said that she’s worried about using it up.

“I’d love to have your job, where I could be talking about this constantly, but if I was talking about it constantly no one would listen to me. Because it just weakens my voice,” she told me. 

“I know that I have valuable life experience, but if I use my voice too much I’ll just be that nattery woman.” 

She is determined to try to increase awareness of and access to SATUs nationally. The units can be crucial in securing a conviction against rapists through the immediate collection of DNA evidence. But Dominique has doing advocacy can almost be harder for people around her, who don’t want to remember what happened to her. She’s fallen out with friends, who have called her an attention seeker for talking to the media. 

“It’s very hard to keep doing what you love, when you’re losing friends because of what you love, because people just want to move on. That is the main cost,” Dominique said. 

For other women, it can be hard to stop being an advocate once your personal story becomes so tangled in a major issue. When Vicky Phelan refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement following her case against the HSE, she exposed the national Cervical Check scandal to the entire country. Vicky revealed that she had been incorrectly told that her smear test results were negative, and the story later grew to reveal hundreds more women had been affected. 

At first, she thought that her story would be like “any other story on the news.”

“When you see someone reading a statement on the steps of the high court and then two days later it’s someone else’s story,” Vicky said.  

“By the time the numbers [of women affected] started getting bigger, I felt that I couldn’t pull away. I was drawn to it, and I felt that people were listening to me.”

Overnight, she became a household name. Vicky took on the government and the HSE, at first as a one-woman campaign. The sheer magnitude of what she was doing didn’t hit her until after she’d done it. 

“It was afterwards when I kind of went; ‘Fuck, I was on Prime Time,’” she said. 

Vicky, who has two children, was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 2017. After exposing the Cervical Check controversy, she succeeded in helping to campaign to get a potentially life changing drug known as Pembro made available through the HSE for some women with cervical cancer. 

People come up to her in the street all the time. Vicky said she expects the women.

“But it’s the men who kind of throw me. The men, unusually, most of them are quiet. They’re just kind of at that emotional point, and do it very quickly and walk away before they cry,” she said. 

People also started turning to her for help, and patients who were dying from serious illnesses started contacting her in their droves. She was seen as a patient advocate and someone who had succeeded in taking on the health service and winning. 

She still has hundreds of unread messages in her inbox. The volume is so overwhelming that she tries to set aside a day a week to get through them. Vicky said she feels “guilty” about not being able to get through them all quickly. She tries to organise her responses by urgency. 

“A lot of them are terminally ill people; not given options, not given hope,” Vicky said. 

“It’s terrible, isn’t it? When you think about it, that these people feel that the only person who can help them is me. I mean, what does that say about our country?”

Her social media inboxes have turned into makeshift clinics. Vicky does what she can, researching clinical trials for different kinds of cancer or passing on contact information that could help. Sometimes when she’s going through the messages she has to stop because she gets too angry; about terminal patients who are being denied access to potentially life-saving drugs. Other times, she gets upset. 

“I remember getting back to a few people, and the members of their family contacted me and told me that the person had since passed away. That happened twice. Twice. That’s hard. I don’t think it would have made a difference if I had replied, but it’s still hard to hear,” Ms Phelan said. 

It struck her that this is something the health service should be doing. She secured funding for a new position, run as a pilot, from a hospital in Dublin. 

The person’s role will be to help anyone diagnosed with a terminal illness to research any new drugs or clinical trials either in Ireland or abroad. It’s designed to give people options and hope, and to have that provided in their local hospital. 

“They should be doing that anyway,” Vicky said. 

It frustrates her that she has power from her profile. Often she can get things done only because the HSE is worried about her going to the press about them, rather than because the HSE knows it’s the right thing to do. 

On a more personal level, she said that telling a personal story so publicly can be hard. Vicky has split up with her husband Jim, but they are co-parenting. She said that separating had already been something they’d decided before she became a public figure.

“But I can only imagine if we hadn’t dealt with that, this definitely would have made things a lot worse,” Vicky said.

She said the hardest part was the effect it had on her children. At the time of her case, there were big loud headlines about a “DYING MOTHER OF TWO.” Vicky hadn’t yet told Darragh, her youngest child, that she had terminal cancer. 

The following Monday after her case was settled, another child ran up to him in the playground and said “is your mammy dying?”

“Before I even had a chance to tackle it, I didn’t think it would happen that fast, but it did,” Vicky said.

“The poor child did really believe it because he knew I was sick. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in all of this.”