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The social media lynch mob ignored horror visited upon flatmates

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 07/04/2016

The headlines that went round the world told a simple story. A young woman had been found guilty by a court in Northern Ireland of having an abortion under a law drawn up during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Amnesty International called it a "grotesque spectacle". Newspaper columnists said it was a "scandal". Feminists and other advocates for legal abortion demanded action, insisting that the 21-year-old woman - who was given a suspended three-month sentence earlier this week after pleading guilty under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act to two charges of self-terminating her pregnancy with drugs bought online - was not a criminal and should never have been treated as such.

Social media, meanwhile, did what it does best (or perhaps that should be worst) by turning on the woman's two flatmates for having reported her to the police in the first place.

On Facebook and Twitter the pair were variously accused of being pro-life fundamentalists or religious extremists with all the human kindness of members of Isis.

"Who needs enemies with flatmates like that?" observed one user.

Much to the annoyance of the internet trolls, it turned out that these two women had their own story to tell - and when they got the chance to tell it, the details were shocking.

One described being asked by her flatmate to fetch a pair of scissors from downstairs because the baby was "hanging out of me on a piece of string".

Later they found a "fully formed" foetus in the bin, where it remained for eight days, because, as one of them said: "I didn't want to throw a baby away - I didn't know what to do."

One said that she was still traumatised by what she saw and had received counselling; another admitted that trying to deal with the situation made her a "frantic mess". Both found the apparently casual attitude of the woman at the centre of this case upsetting and wrong.

Rather than being sympathetic of the fact that these unfortunate women had also suffered a harrowing experience, they were simply abused again for daring to tell their side of the story.

They were told that not only did they have no right to judge the woman in question - even as, ironically, they were being judged and found wanting for what they had done - but that they should not have spoken about the matter at all.

The message was clear: the only women who should be allowed to have an opinion on abortion are those who are in favour of it.

Abortion demands a complex moral engagement, not slogans and Twitter witchhunts. We seem to have replaced a cold, judgmental attitude towards women who have had abortions with an equally harsh, unyielding attitude towards people who object to abortion.

In a way it's even worse now, because those who form lynch mobs on social media to demonise those of whom they disapprove imagine themselves to be the true voices of tolerance and decency. They're anything but. They're a new breed of angry zealot whose first response is always to shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

The young woman at the centre of this case deserves every sympathy, because she wouldn't have been in this position in any other part of the UK. But her two flatmates who were dragged into this nightmare without their consent deserve sympathy too.

They did not ask for their home, a place where they are supposed to feel safe, to be turned into a horror show. There were probably better ways of handling it than calling the police, but it is easy for us to say that. We were not there. They were. We have no right to tell them how they should have felt about what they saw, and we certainly should not tell them to shut up just because they make us feel uncomfortable about the ugly side of an issue with no easy answers.

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