In the light of St Patrick’s Day (drunken, unprotected sex anyone?), and of this piece being shortlisted at the UK Sexual Health Awards 2013 last week (I didn’t win), I thought I’d re-post this article I wrote on Irish/ Northern Irish women who travel to the UK to seek abortions. Reportedly, 15 women make this journey per day.

I wrote this article just over a year ago. Despite all the news surrounding Savita Halappanavar and the Belfast clinic opening, zero progression in Irish abortion law has been made. Women’s reproductive rights still don’t exist there. Through the kindness of strangers, women who can’t afford an abortion (and definitely not a child) are able to travel to the UK for this basic medical procedure.

Here goes:

The Secret Abortion Trail

There will always be pro-lifers. There will always be pro-choicers. There will also always be women seeking abortion.

According to new research from the Guttmacher Institute and World Health Organisation, ‘restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion’. Instead, they make safe abortions more difficult to obtain. As the Irish abortion debate rages on, Abortion Support Network (ASN) helps hundreds of Irish women making the journey to England to terminate their unwanted pregnancies – but can’t afford to.

Every year, nearly 7,000 women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland cross the Irish Sea to have an abortion in a British clinic. Mara Clarke, the founder and Director of ASN, asks, “Why in 2012, in the western world, does ASN need to exist? Why are women still forced into this circumstance where they have to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers to access a medical procedure?”

Under the 1861 ‘Offences Against The Person Act’, abortion is illegal in Ireland and Northern Ireland. This includes cases of rape and foetal abnormality. The unborn has an explicit right to life from conception. Women who want to terminate their unplanned or unwanted pregnancies must make a silent journey to England, often alone.

Mara is matter-of-fact about the situation: “It is absolutely a class-based decision. Women with money have options, women without money don’t”. An Irish or Northern Irish woman is a private patient in the UK, where abortion is legal until 24 weeks, 5 days. Prices start at around £330, rise exponentially after 14 weeks, and past 19 weeks rise to £1595. However, this only covers the procedure, not travel (which is often last-minute air fare), accommodation, childcare costs or a passport.

ASN was founded in 2009 to provide accommodation, financial assistance and confidential, non-judgmental information to the women forced to travel to England to access a safe, legal abortion. The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) describe a ‘culture of silence and confusion’ in Ireland; accessing basic services for any counselling or medical advice can be an isolating, daunting prospect.

Often, the women ASN hear from will not have been able to tell anyone. The stigma attached to abortion in Ireland and Northern Ireland is strong; screaming pro-life campaigners picket family planning clinics and rogue crisis pregnancy agencies misinform and bully pregnant women. In 1992, The ‘Offences Against the Person Act’ gained amendments to provide a ‘right to travel’ and ‘right to information’. However, twenty years on women are still unsure of how to exercise these.

“It is absolutely a class-based decision. Women with money have options, women without money don’t.”

“We have women call us because they just don’t know the law, they don’t know their options” explains Katie, one of ASN’s phone volunteers. ASN are contactable by phone, e-mail or text. However they clarify that they are ‘not doctors or counsellors’. The majority of cases they deal with are concerning women who have made their decision, saved up what money they can but are racing against time and struggling. Inevitably, the recession has been a further blow. “I’ve heard the word ‘redundant’ a thousand times over the last six months”, Katie continues, “everybody is saying “I was laid off”; “my husband was laid off”; “we don’t have any money coming into the family”; “I don’t have any savings”, “I can’t afford my mortgage any more.””

Mara describes women ‘in desperate situations’, explaining “when you make abortion against the law, all you do is make it even harder for poor women, or more often women with children, or disenfranchised women, or very young girls”. She adds: “We don’t feel like we always have to talk about the raped 15 year old, although we’ve had several”.

ASN carefully consider every case on an individual basis, but Mara highlights a commonality: “They [the women] are more or less frantic 92% per cent of the time, because they don’t have the money. I can’t tell you the amount of families who say ‘if we don’t pay our rent this month, we can pay for the flights, can you help with the procedure? We once heard from this girl who was £20 short. Can you imagine £20 making the difference between you and the rest of your life?”

First, by law, women must receive a consultation to have an abortion. These can be accessed for free in Ireland, Northern Ireland or for a small fee in England. However, Susie, one of the trustees, notes that clinics can be ‘very compassionate’ for Irish women. After this, women must consider which clinic to go to. Then, they must start to plan a complicated journey and, foremost, how to explain their disappearance to people. Katie is keen to point out that, for many women, it is an unfathomable ordeal.

“Because we’re dealing with women below the poverty line or who are seriously struggling financially, some of them have never left Ireland.” Obtaining a passport in time is a frequent problem. Furthermore, there are different clinics in different cities for different stages of gestation on different days. ASN advises women organising their travel and has 21 volunteer hosts in the UK who provide accommodation for women who need to stay overnight, necessary for post-19 weeks procedures. However, it is not uncommon for women to want to complete everything in a single day.

Mara recalls a case which she promises is not atypical: “we just heard from a girl who flew from Ireland to Liverpool and took a train to Birmingham, then the next morning took a 5am train to go to Manchester so she could fly out. We hear women who are five hours from the airport but want to come in and out in a day. They have to take the first flight in and the last flight out. So they sleep in the airport the night before.’

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service warns: ‘It is best not to travel within 24 hours of treatment’. The side effects of abortion can include sickness, heavy bleeding and abdominal cramps. Nevertheless, the psychological distress of telling other people, compounded with the financial impossibility of missing a day of work, or inability to cover childcare, leaves women with restricted options.

“Amongst women from Northern Ireland, a higher percentage are less likely to have been able to tell anybody about their decision to terminate, with the possible exception of their partners, if they have partners”, details Mara. Another issue of disclosure comes from victims of domestic violence, who often fear that they would be physically prevented from leaving the country and forced to keep the pregnancy.

Psychologically, Mara believes the inability to talk about it, sometimes lying to friends, families and work, leaves women ‘so alone, with a level of shame’. Sometimes, ASN are the first people the women will talk to. Katie describes ‘women who may have kept it bottled up and immediately start crying’ on the phone.

However, not all the women come to ASN alone. Not all the pregnancies are unwanted. Mara recounts how some of the most harrowing cases they help are with couples who are planning a family: “Some of the most heart-breaking people we hear from are couples with wanted pregnancies, who don’t find out until after week 20 that there are catastrophic anomalies: babies with no brains, babies with no internal organs.”

This presents an impossible situation: “Imagine you find out that your wanted pregnancy is going to result in a baby that is going to die within days of being born. You have a matter of weeks, first to decide whether you want to continue with the pregnancy or not, and secondly to come up with about £3000.” These procedures must take place in a hospital setting, and are at top-end prices. And this still leaves last-minute plane tickets and overnight accommodation to pay for.

This is the grim reality of such restrictive legislation. However, the ASN team are relentlessly compassionate. Mara, Katie and Susie all believe in practical welfare. ASN is a support service and facilitator of women’s needs. It is not a campaigning organisation; groups such as Choice Ireland, Alliance For Choice and Abortion Rights are already fighting for more liberal abortion law.

Mara emphasises her belief that ‘this is a decision that should be made by a woman, with unbiased medical information and where appropriate, with her partner and her god.’ When asked how she describes her pro-choice politics to her five-year-old daughter, she merrily replies, “women who are mummies should want to be mummies”. She glows with admiration at the ‘incredible resourcefulness’ of the women ASN hears from, who do everything in their power to gather the necessary money.

ASN is the only charity in the UK to financially support Irish women seeking abortion in England. Last year they heard from 250 women. Consisting of 36 dynamic volunteers, Susie describes the organisation as ‘very grassroots’ and ‘non-bureaucratic’. However, it’s working: the number of calls they receive has already tripled since last year. The phone advisors are given the autonomy to grant women up to £200 without permission and sometimes, women are sorted within 15 minutes of calling. The method is simple, Mara says, “Here’s a woman. She needs our help. We’ll help her”.

“None of us are paid”, affirms Susie, “we can guarantee every penny goes to the women”. ASN is funded by individual donors. Their only expense is their phone bill, which is covered by a donor with an unrestricted standing order. Volunteers fit ASN around other jobs. Despite this, they all claim that their job satisfaction is immense. Mara proudly declares, “ASN is what happens when a group of people decide that they want to make a difference in people’s lives”. Although they run on a ‘hand-to-mouth’ basis and are ‘almost always running out of money’, they have never turned a woman down to date. Their sole aim for the future is to ‘survive and keep helping women’.

In January 2010, The Irish Examiner conducted a survey, concluding that 60% of 18-35 year olds were in favour of legal abortion. The ‘A, B and C v Ireland’ case in 2010, which saw three Irish women who had travelled to England to access abortions challenge the Irish Government’s ban on abortion in the European Court of Human Rights, and Ireland’s recent introduction of the morning-after pill over the counter in February 2011, hints that a change in legislation could be on the horizon. Yet it is not guaranteed. ASN have received criticism that they are a ‘plaster’ for a governmental problem: helping these women so the government doesn’t have to. Katie calmly sweeps this criticism aside: “I challenge anyone to spend five minutes on the phone to these women and not want to help them”.