Musician Isobel Anderson has teamed up with Alliance For Choice as part of their I’m A Life campaign
It’s a Friday night on 1 March in Belfast’s much-loved venue the Black Box, and I am sat at a table with some celebration drinks alongside Emma Campbell, Alliance For Choice’s (A4C) Co-Chair. As well as preparing for the doors to open for the premiere of the ‘I’m A Life’ music video, we are taking this moment to fully appreciate all the hard work we have put into this collaborative project.
I met Emma more than nine months previous to this, when I approached her and A4C about a new video project funded by the PRS Foundation Women Make Music grant. I wanted to collaborate with A4C on the video for a song that I had released the previous year, ‘_4284_ / I’m A Life’. The title makes reference to the number of Irish women from both North and South, who had travelled to England and Wales to access abortion services in 2016, the year I wrote the song. The lyrics use verbatim one woman’s real online account of travelling from Ireland to England for an abortion. I hoped the video could feature A4C supporters and those affected by the abortion rights campaign in Northern Ireland (NI).
We started hatching plans and discussing how the project might work, and fast forward several months, here we are getting ready to present the finished video to an audience before it goes live online at midnight. As I am finishing our social media posts, A4C are busily setting up their merch table, which, as well as their T-shirts, jumpers and badges, features the limited-edition I’m A Life jumper designed by the pro-choice clothing brand La Batarde. Two purple hands with fingers that extent upwards spell out I’m A Life on the jumper’s chest, and of the 200 we have printed, almost all have been sold. We have the last few on sale tonight.
Gradually, people start to arrive as the doors open and it dawns on me more and more that I have volunteered to compere the night. I have taken on this role before and largely enjoyed it, but tonight feels different. This project has been an incredibly emotional and complex one and therefore I really don’t want to mess this gig up. So as more people drift into the room, order their drinks and find a place to sit, I start to feel slightly anxious.
When it comes to 8.15pm it’s time to take to the stage, and so I introduce Emma to our audience. She describes the amazing work A4C do: an activist group who campaign to make abortion free, safe, legal and available in Northern Ireland. NI is now the only place in the UK and Ireland where abortion is illegal in most cases, including rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. Anyone accessing abortion services can be arrested and charged. Therefore, A4C tirelessly campaign to both legalise abortion and support women seeking information on safe abortion support. Furthermore, they also provide educational workshops across NI on the facts about sexual health, stigma around sex and abortion itself.
The core members of A4C, and the many people who support and campaign alongside them, have been protesting for NI abortion rights for many years. They passionately and tirelessly work towards making sure that everyone who might get pregnant in NI has autonomy over their bodies, with full access to reproductive healthcare. This is no mean feat and comes with the risk of violence and social stigma. However, the May referendum result in the Republic of Ireland was a resounding “yes” to making abortion legal there, and has encouraged pro-choice activists in the North to persevere. As Emma leaves the stage to the sound of applause from the audience, I introduce a young woman called Vicky.
Vicky contacted me a few weeks before because she had seen two men debating on my Facebook page whether the I’m A Life slogan sounded “too pro-life”. She messaged me to express how angry this made her as it seemed to be hugely missing the point of the message of the project. For her, our slogan had been incredibly empowering.
Tonight, Vicky describes how she went through multiple miscarriages, becoming more and more distressed and desperate to put an end to the cycle. Little did she know she has a pre-existing condition that makes her much more likely to miscarry. There were no investigations into why she wasn’t able to carry a pregnancy to term, and by the third time, she was desperate to end her much-wanted pregnancy as soon as she realised she was miscarrying. Instead, she had to wait days for it to happen naturally and she was appalled at how the NI legal system valued the potential life bound up in her failed pregnancy over her own well-being.
Vicky shares with the audience tonight how putting on her I’m A Life jumper and listening to my song reduced her to tears as it was the first time she felt valued as more than a “walking incubator”. Her story demonstrates why the I’m A Life statement is important for pregnant people in NI as their lives are not valued beyond any serious and proven fatal risk to their life or mental health. The real implications of how a woman’s life might be affected by carrying a pregnancy, giving birth and either raising a child or giving them up for adoption are not a consideration.
It is clear that tonight, the room is moved and, sadly, all too familiar with Vicky’s story. Many people in NI have themselves experienced this sense of loss of control and autonomy over their own bodies, or know someone who has. This is, of course, an experience that many women from the Republic of Ireland have also been familiar with, decades after abortion was legalised in the UK during the 1960s. And so, I gesture towards a projector screen where a video message to the audience from Janet O’Sullivan is about to start.
Janet, who is based in Dublin, wrote the blog article that became the inspiration for the lyrics of my song ‘_4284_ / I’m A Life’. I came across Janet’s article while looking for real life accounts of having to travel from Ireland to England for an abortion in 2015, when there was an explosion of Irish women sharing their experiences online. Janet’s account caught my attention because not only does it cover the emotional aspects of this experience but also the details, such as the floors of the waiting rooms, and I knew this could become a compelling song. She also describes how having an abortion when she was younger saved her life, and that she understands this by looking at the children she gave birth to subsequently. This illustrates how complex and individual the issue of abortion is for many people, and how it can change throughout one’s lifetime.
When Janet first heard the song I had written using her story she says: “I cried… They were complex tears, of surprise, tinged with sadness and then of joy. When I shared my story four years ago I had no idea of the impact it would have…”
Janet’s message is followed by a video message from Dave Neil, who filmed and directed the ‘I’m A Life’ video. He and I travelled to Northern Ireland in November 2018 to film for three days across the country. I knew that Dave would be a fantastic person to work with on this project because he is so kind, curious and sensitive to people‘s needs. We filmed more than 30 supporters of A4C who feature in the ‘I’m A Life’ video. Dave, like many in the rest of the UK, had no idea about the lack of abortion rights in Northern Ireland prior to this project, and was deeply moved by his time spent talking with the women he met on the shoot.
Janet and Dave’s video messages set the scene for the first screening of the ‘I’m A Life’ video. As the music fades in, and Dave’s beautifully shot scenes of Belfast start, it feels incredible sharing this moment with a room full of people who all care so passionately about this issue.
Many of the people who appear in the video are here tonight in the Black Box, and watching it with them all on a big screen for the first time is such a powerful moment. Towards the end of the video, accompanying a recording I made in 2016 of the Belfast Rally For Choice March, some text explains the facts and statistics about abortion rights in Northern Ireland as they stand in this moment in time. Much like the information I have shared with you in this article, they outline NI’s very rigid laws, alongside the fact that 28 abortion seekers are forced to leave Northern Ireland every week to access abortion services elsewhere. The text fades to the sound of defiant chanting from pro-choice protesters, and then… silence.
I can feel the room’s weight of emotion in this moment, as well as the applause that cascades in afterwards. We are not just applauding A4C and the brave people who appear in the video, but also the collective efforts pro-choice activists have been making for decades across Ireland to make abortion free, safe and legal.
Afterwards, Emma and Naomi from A4C and I take part in an onstage Q&A with the audience. Many issues are raised including the role of education, the lack of government in Stormont for the last two years, and the responsibility of Theresa May to push for change now that the Conservatives are in coalition with the DUP (who are very against legalising abortion in NI). I also explain my own reasons for passionately believing in a person’s right to body autonomy.
I have never had an abortion and have never been pregnant, but for years now, I have lived with chronic pain. I take medication daily and have debilitating symptoms. The idea of being forced to go through with an unplanned pregnancy in my circumstances is unthinkable. I have not yet been in the position where I would have to make that choice, which would be a very, very hard one, but it would be utterly inhumane to not be afforded a choice at all.
After the Q&A it is now time for some music, and so local feminist musician Fears followed by DJ Venus Du Pre, take to the stage. I order a drink and dance in the smoke machine and disco light tinged darkness. We celebrate together and eventually go home. As my head hits the pillow I feel exhausted but buzzing.
I wake up to my Twitter feed overflowing with Northern Irish activists and celebrities, such as The Fall’s Bronagh Waugh, retweeting the ‘I’m A Life’ video. Numerous supporters from Ireland, North and South, and the rest of the UK share their reaction and admiration for the video and the women who appear in it.
Since that night, the ‘I’m A Life’ video has had nearly 10,000 views on YouTube, and has been featured in Stylist magazine, Dazed and Her.ie. Through its crowdfunder and the I’m A Life sweatshirts, the project has raised nearly £10,000 for A4C’s vital work.
There have been reactions, bad as well as good, but I knew this would be a divisive story we were telling, and the comment feed on the YouTube video demonstrates this. For me as an artist, what has been the most incredible thing to have come from this project, has been the individual messages from people whose lives have been touched and affected by the abortion rights issue in Northern Ireland, like Vicky.
This issue affects people young and old, Protestant and Catholic, parents and childless alike. What the ‘I’m A Life’ video has contributed to is an end to the stigma and shame many Northern Irish people have faced when seeking abortion services, and the change that is undoubtedly coming to this part of the UK.
If you would like to show the ‘I’m A Life’ video at your community centre, festival or another public event, please contact us at [email protected] We want this video to help people who have been affected by the issues discussed here, and to educate people around the UK who may be unaware of the situation that pregnant people still find themselves in, in Northern Ireland and around the world. I am confident this will eventually change, but people in Northern Ireland need our support right now so that everyone in the UK and Ireland has a right to choose.
All images provided by Isobel Anderson. Image one is a group portrait of Alliance For Choice campaigners, with placards. Image two shows the Alliance For Choice campaigners sitting on the pavement next to a hoarding that says ‘Belfast’. Image three is a still from the ‘I’m A Life’ video and shows a woman wearing one of the branded jumpers looking straight at the camera.