A Cork woman who has experienced extensive abuse for speaking about abortion access is asking everyone involved in the debate around the Eighth Amendment to be respectful of people who tell personal stories, saying: “That doesn’t mean that we are fair game."
Within hours of the birth of Annie Roche’s daughter Aishling in 2010, it became clear that the little girl had significant health difficulties. Doctors diagnosed her with multiple complex heart diseases and she was brought to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, where tests showed that Aishling would not live long. Annie and husband Ciaran, seeing how their daughter suffered, made the decision not to continue treatment that would only extend her pain and distress. Aishling died in Annie’s arms six days after her birth.
In 2016, Annie decided to tell her story as she called on the Government to legislate for cases of fatal foetal abnormality. She supports the repeal of the Eighth Amendment as she does now want anyone else to have to go through what she did but was shocked by the vitriol that greeted her.
“I had people saying I rejected my child because she was disabled, that I wanted her to die, people talking about my family,” she said.
The Government has recently committed to a referendum on the issue, which looks set to dominate Irish life and media for the next few months. It is a topic that triggers strong responses from people of all views. In recent weeks a popular Twitter account which changes curator every week, the @Ireland account, was taken over by a young American woman. It was revealed that she is an active pro-life campaigner in the US and a post by her father suggested she was in Ireland to participate in the referendum campaign. She denies this but the revelations prompted a strong reaction which in some cases escalated to abuse.
Annie is unreserved in her condemnation of the personal attacks.
“I saw a screenshot saying if she ever went to Galway she’d get a punch in the face and things like that. It was absolute abuse; there is no two ways around it.
“All abuse should be called out. I believe what was said to her, no matter what her beliefs are, should be called out - across the board. I think pro-choice people have to realise, that hatred directed at anybody is not something we want to be associated with. It is actually quite difficult to watch because those commenters are dragging us to a level we don’t want to be - it is not representative of the majority of people.”
However, Annie also pointed out that pro-life campaigners who have rushed to defend the @Ireland curator, said nothing when she faced an onslaught of personal attacks after telling her story to the Evening Echo.
“Why not call out all abuse? There was a deafening silence when I was receiving abuse. In one day, I was receiving literally hundreds of comments. I actually had to stop going on social media for a while because I couldn’t look at some of the stuff that was sent to me, and written about me. I had people talking about catching me by the neck, people calling me a bitch.
“It was said to pro-life campaign people on social media and they were shown what was being said. And the response of someone from the pro-life campaign was, ‘why are you asking me about it, it has nothing to do with me’.”
She is equally confident that the people who attacked her are not representative of everyone who considers themselves pro-life.
“I don’t believe anyone who sends this stuff is representative of the majority of pro-life people but if it is happening it should be said ‘lads we want no involvement in that’.
“It should be across the board, especially in the coming months because it can become quite intense.”
Annie shared her story in the hope of making people aware of the difficult decisions people face in life and said she and others like her should not be attacked for that.
“It is hatred directed at people who are going out of their way to share a personal story or a personal experience, that is not easy to relive, over and over again,” she said.
“They aren't doing it to cause offence, they are trying to get proper information out there so people know the truth and can make up their own minds, based on the experience of people who have actually lived through it.
“That doesn’t mean that we are fair game to be insulted. We can be disagreed with, you don’t have to agree with us, you don’t have to vote the way we think you should. But to throw hatred at people and viciously attack them is wrong.”
She said her family and friends were also impacted, including her daughter.
“She was told in fifth class that her mammy was on the radio talking about abortion. A couple of people said ‘my mammy says your mother is great’ and other people told her ‘your mother wants to kill babies’. That was said to her in school so I had to sit down and explain it to her.
“I think people were quite shocked and it opened some eyes about what you have to endure when you speak publicly. The message I got was that if you are going to do this then this is what you can expect.
“I don’t believe, no matter what my opinion is, or that girl [on the @Ireland account], that you should have to expect or get used to that kind of abuse.”
Annie fully supports repeal of the Eighth Amendment. She described the harrowing effects of Aishling's death on the whole family, including a profound effect on her older daughter who was six at the time. She believes that if she had found out during the pregnancy about Aisling's condition, that she would have continued. But now that she has lived it, and seen the enormous impact on everyone, she feels choice must be made available.
“Could I honestly say I could definitely do it a second time? No. There are people who have told me I am selfish for that. That I am just trying to avoid grief, that it is not about the baby, I just don’t want to watch someone die. People don’t fully understand the impact on an entire family.
“We don’t know how to navigate this stuff, there is no handbook, no one to teach us.
“People say things that feel like a punch in the stomach. I had someone say, a few months after, ‘but why would you let her die if you could have kept her for a little longer?’. There is almost an assumption that you are somehow a bad person, that you have failed your child.
“You have to come to terms with the fact that people who say things like that are not the ones in the situation at the time, sitting there looking at a baby and getting the information.
“I remember someone saying that is we got the ‘proper’ help and support it would have been a life-affirming experience. I could never describe it as that, I just can’t.”
She is keen to emphasise that their experience will differ from others.
“I do know families who chose to do it and would do it again,” she said.
“There are a variety of beliefs and feelings, we don’t fit into neat categories. We believe we should have a system based on the needs of the families, it is not a one-size-fits-all.
“The solution would be different for each family. It has to be primarily between that family and proper counsellors, doctors and nurses. It can’t be something made to fit every family, that is just impossible. Allow it to be a private, well-supported choice for each family. You’re not choosing for these families, you giving them the environment to make decisions and have the care available for whatever decisions they make.
“There is this idea that if you vote to repeal you are voting for abortion in these circumstances, that is not the case. It is almost an insult to suggest everyone is going to start doing that. It is absolutely not the case.
“The idea that we have to be somehow saved from making the wrong decision is insulting. “The insinuation that we don’t understand or weren’t emotionally stable enough, or didn’t have the right information, it always annoys me. It feels like an insult to my intelligence and the fact that I did take that decision.
“People need to learn and see it is not black and white, life is lived in the grey area.”