Based on the stories of real women, this powerful BBC One drama explores how ordinary people have been affected by curbs on abortion in Northern Ireland.
The case made headlines across the globe. In 2015, it emerged that a woman in Northern Ireland was to be prosecuted for buying abortion pills online and giving them to her 15-year-old daughter, who wanted to end a pregnancy.
The pills in question, mifepristone and misoprostol, are prescribed by medics around the world to safely induce abortion. But they were illegal in Northern Ireland, which until recently had some of the most limited reproductive rights in Europe – with terminations banned in virtually all circumstances, including in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. The woman was charged with procuring a “poison or other noxious substance”; if found guilty at trial, she faced up to 10 years in prison.
Eventually, after abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 following an intervention from the government in Westminster, the woman was acquitted. Now, her story has inspired a central plotline in BBC One’s new two-part drama Three Families.
At the heart of Three Families is the story of Theresa (Sinéad Keenan), a hairdresser whose daughter Orla (Bloodlands’ Lola Pettricrew) discloses her pregnancy shortly after finishing her GCSEs. Theresa can’t afford to pay for Orla to travel to England for a termination – and besides, as a devout Catholic, she believes abortion is a “mortal sin”.
But when Orla shows her mother the bruises on her body where her boyfriend has hit her, Theresa’s position shifts. Some late-night googling reveals that it’s possible to buy pills over the internet that will, as Theresa sees it, “bring on your period”. So that’s what she does – setting in motion a chain of events that leads to her prosecution.
In contrast to Orla, the two other pregnant characters in Three Families – also based on real women interviewed by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes – are thrilled by the prospect of motherhood. Yet they still suffer because of Northern Ireland’s abortion ban. Millennial couple Hannah (Amy James-Kelly) and Jonathan (Colin Morgan) have been trying to conceive for some time, while affluent forty-something Rosie (Genevieve O’Reilly), who recently moved back to Northern Ireland with her English husband David (Prasanna Puwanarajah), had accepted that motherhood wasn’t going to be part of her life story.
Both women are elated to discover that they are pregnant, and both are devastated when their unborn daughters are diagnosed with serious conditions that mean they will likely be stillborn or die shortly after birth. Because abortion was illegal in Northern Ireland even in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, Hannah and Rosie are forced to continue with their pregnancies despite knowing their babies will not survive. The grief and indignity of it all is awful to witness.
There is much to admire about Three Families. It highlights that there are all kinds of reasons why someone might need to terminate a pregnancy, and drives home the ways in which anti-choice laws rob individuals of their agency. Thanks to a storyline that sees Hannah get involved with abortion rights activism, it also recognises the years of grinding hard work put in by grassroots Northern Irish feminist groups such as Alliance For Choice.
Yet the drama purposefully avoids demonising those who oppose abortion. Even characters with staunchly anti-choice beliefs are shown to be capable of empathy and flexibility when confronted with a real-life situation involving a loved one who needed a termination. When Orla asks her mother if she thinks buying abortion pills made her complicit in a murder, Theresa replies: “Honestly, I don’t know. But I know I would do it all again if I had to.”
Despite joyful scenes in Three Families when it is announced that abortion will be legalised, this isn’t a period piece with an uncomplicated happy ending. Terminations may no longer be banned, but they are still severely limited in Northern Ireland thanks to politicians refusing to fund proper abortion healthcare.
The region’s Department of Health has said it is “not required” to commission any permanent abortion services – and even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, women and pregnant people were still being advised by the country’s Department of Health to travel to mainland Britain if they needed a termination.
In October 2020, Naomi Connor, co-convener of Alliance For Choice, told Stylist that individual health trusts in Northern Ireland have been required to find “the time, resources and funding” to provide any abortion services, rather than receiving support from the central government.
This has had a dire effect on access to terminations: just last month, one major health trust announced it was suspending its early medical abortion services due to a lack of “nursing and medical support”. Northern Ireland’s Department of Health had also refused to introduce abortion telemedicine during the pandemic, where pills to end a pregnancy are delivered by post.
“Despite the best efforts of dedicated healthcare professionals, this has led to a service which is far from what we hoped for,” Connor said. “Women and pregnant people are still being denied the fitting and adequate abortion healthcare they require.”
In April, MPs in the House of Commons voted to give Westminster the power to force Northern Ireland’s Department of Health to introduce full abortion services. While 88 Northern Irish MPs from across the political divide supported the move, others – mostly from the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – argue that it threatens devolution, where the government in Northern Ireland is allowed to set its own policies.
Crucially, Three Families makes clear that this is not a straightforward issue. One of Hannah’s fellow pro-choice campaigners, who desperately wants abortion to be legalised, describes Westminster’s interference as “imperialist”, “unconstitutional” and an example of “direct rule”. But human rights campaigners say it has only been necessary for MPs from elsewhere in the UK to get involved because of Northern Irish politicians’ lack of action.
“Stormont’s failure has meant this further action at Westminster is necessary to ensure abortion rights are realised here,” Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager, said in April. “Those in need of abortion healthcare have waited long enough.”
It’s not an easy watch, but Three Families is a moving and complex drama that highlights why reproductive rights are so essential – and reminds us that despite the change in the law, the campaign for safe, legal abortion in Northern Ireland is far from over.
Three Families starts 10 May, 9pm, BBC One
Images: BBC/Studio Lambert
Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.