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By Amanda Sebestien

Customer Review

ByAmanda Sebestyenon 5 May 2009
I came expecting a work of solidarity and memory - a useful, some times moving record of a movement of women in the recent past. It would be a fine text for gender studies and social anthropology courses, where they still exist to be taught.

The book is that, of course. But between those respectable covers I found a kind of hand-grenade, primed with wit and fury.

How had so few of us registered that birth control and safe legal abortion rights - won for English women in 1967 - are still explicitly denied to women in Northern Ireland, though the British state still claims it as part of the UK?

And - though we knew abortion was outlawed yet the remaining desperate option in the Irish Republic (a situation which some times seems closer to Colombia or Nicaragua than the rest of the Catholic EU) - did we know that generations of women were terrorised with the image of their foetus being agonisingly tortured for all eternity?That's what the doctrine of Limbo meant, in practice; a doctrine upheld ruthlessly for six centuries, then dropped by the present Pope two years ago, without a word of apology to the generations of women whose lives it had ruined.

Women denied birth control were being forced to view themselves as worse than murderers if they used abortion. One result was infanticide , and tragic attempts to baptise both smothered infants and the aborted embryos which were on the same level of life in the eyes of the Church.

An 'underground railroad' of Irishwomen in London formed in 1981, ready to help some of the estimated 6,500 women per year forced to cross the sea and struggle across a strange city, seeking a clinic to terminate their pregnancies.

The stories are all here: the incest case, the ardently 'British' Unionist helped by 'Paddies' , the links to Spanish women (once in the same predicament, now living in a modern secular republic, though always threatened with reversals by referenda). And the dancing and demonstrating of a vibrant group of activists, enjoying their freedom and passing it on.

But the cruelty of so many of these women's predicaments is breathtaking. The author's own account of her illegal abortion, before the 1967 Abortion Act, does not flinch. We do, and realise this cannot and must not go on .

Last year Diane Abbott MP tried to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland as part of the Embryology Bill, but the British government chickened out. And neither of NI's governing parties , Sinn Fein or the DUP, would attend the launch of this book in Stormont parliament. But now Ireland's Hidden Diaspora is going to the Dail in Dublin. I hope it makes an almighty bang.

Amanda Sebestyen