It was only a couple of years ago, I’d warrant, that the majority of people in Great Britain became aware of the fact that, although the 1967 Abortion Act has permitted the termination of unwanted pregnancies for the past 50-odd years, its remit never extended to Northern Ireland. An extraordinary grassroots campaign to give the country’s women the same rights that exist in England culminated in Westminster forcing the decriminalisation of the procedure in 2019.
Gwyneth Hughes’s drama Three Families (BBC One) began in 2013 and took in the situation at the time, and the fight for liberalisation of the law, through a series of personal rather than political lenses. The trio of narratives were based on Hughes’s interviews with three women whose lives were altered by the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
The first story centres around Theresa (Sinéad Keenan). Despite religious qualms, she orders termination pills for her underage pregnant daughter and is charged under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 for procuring an abortion. The second strand follows Hannah (Amy James-Kelly), who is forced to go through with a much-wanted pregnancy even after the unborn baby – a girl – is diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality. The child cannot survive after birth, if she even survives that.
Hannah is, even under Northern Irish rules, technically entitled to a termination but her doctor refuses to permit it and she is misinformed about deadlines for the operation in England. She finds solace in activism, joining the campaign to change the law.
The third story begins in the second episode of the two-parter, and involves Rosie (Genevieve O’Reilly), a woman who again qualifies, on paper, for a termination, because of the probable catastrophic effect on her mental health if she is required to deliver a baby that will die before or shortly after birth.
By virtue of its content, this could not have been other than an emotive drama. But its potential power was vastly attenuated by an underpowered, unevocative script (“I want a life, Mammy! I don’t want …” “A life like mine?”) that never allowed it to transcend the box-ticking aspect or develop the characters much beyond ciphers.
And, given the depth of the feeling and historic division there was – and remains – about the issue in Northern Ireland, there was remarkably little tension throughout (even in the second part, where you might have expected some ratcheting). Theresa’s inner conflict was swiftly set aside. All the women’s husbands were essentially supportive of their decisions, and the showdown you would have thought likely between Theresa and her best friend Louise (Kerri Quinn), who spent her spare time protesting outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, pressing plastic models of embryos into the hands of women being escorted through the maelstrom to access their services, did not materialise.
While it may accurately reflect the personal experience of Hughes’s interviewees, Three Families failed to dramatise the larger issues at play. The massive, enduring resistance to giving women the right to choose came and comes from somewhere. It remains one of the most intractable subjects in the country (the decriminalisation is still being officially and unofficially resisted today).
Aside from Hannah’s involvement with the campaign (which was only fleetingly shown, had her husband’s full support and led to no problems there or in her wider acquaintanceship), the concentration on the personal aspect created a strangely depoliticised drama about a period in which the absolute opposite happened. This was a time when ordinary women found themselves marching, leafleting, speaking out about their experiences and demanding that they be granted human rights commensurate with those of women across the tiny stretch of sea that presented such a barrier to freedom, in hitherto unheard-of numbers. And yet the greatest prejudice any of the three faced here was when a colleague of Hannah’s was told about the abnormality and replied – again with the signature lack of subtlety to the script: “Abortion is wrong. It’s killing babies,” and told her kindly that she wouldn’t repeat the conversation as “It’s not a thing you want people gossiping about.”
Perhaps if it had been given three hours to tell the stories we would have got a better sense of the complexities and intersections between the influences (church, state, sexism, each permeating the other) that have shaped and restricted the country’s laws for so long. As it was, it felt too rushed and superficial. But there will, alas, be many other chances to tell these stories still to come.