Alison O'Connor: Availability of abortion to Irish citizens is a sign of a mature society

So many of us knew women who'd had to travel for abortions and understood the pain that involved, writes Alison O'Connor
Alison O'Connor: Availability of abortion to Irish citizens is a sign of a mature society

So many of us knew women who'd had to travel for abortions and understood the pain that involved, writes Alison O'Connor

Supporters at Dublin Castle for the referendum result on the 8th amendment when the electorate voted in favour of overturning the abortion ban. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Supporters at Dublin Castle for the referendum result on the 8th amendment when the electorate voted in favour of overturning the abortion ban. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The headlines this week that almost 7,000 abortions had been carried out in Ireland last year were both a shock and a relief.

After all haven’t we been reading for decades of how thousands of Irish women had travelled to the UK to get abortions because they were not available in their home country. The difference now is these terminations of pregnancy are taking place on home turf. The vast majority of women do not have to book an airline ticket and go through the horrors of getting an abortion in a foreign country.

It is two years now since we made the historic decision to vote so decisively — more than 66% of us — to allow abortion in Ireland. The system has settled in, as it were, and the report by the Minister for Health on abortion notifications in 2019 shows that under new legislation, which allowed legal terminations of pregnancy, 6,666 abortions were carried out in 2019.

In the run-up to the referendum campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment the then health minister Simon Harris — who leaves the Department of Health with a patchy record in some areas, but success on the issues of the Eighth Amendment, and his handling of the pandemic — stood in the Dáil and read into the record the numbers of Irish women who’d travelled to the UK for abortions in 2016. He named each county and gave the relevant figure for each place — bringing home the fact that it was an issue that affected women in every town and village, women that everyone knew.

“These are not faceless women. They are our friends and neighbours, sisters, cousins, mothers, aunts, wives,” he said.

The publication of this first annual report since those changes in law, means we can now look at a map of Ireland and see that, for instance, 606 women in Cork had abortions last year; 2,493 in Dublin; 48 in Kerry; 213 in Louth; 280 in Galway, and so on.

You can have an abortion now in Ireland if your pregnancy is less than 12 weeks. You do not have to pay for it. If it is less than nine weeks you can take the abortion pill which involves two consultations and a three-day waiting period in between. Later than that in the pregnancy involves getting a surgical abortion.

The vast majority of those abortions, 98%, took place in early pregnancy at less than 12 weeks gestation. We were not told whether they were performed in hospitals or in the community, but logic dictates that at this early stage of pregnancy, most, if not all, came about through use of the abortion pill. In the very few cases where it does not work a woman then needs to undergo a surgical abortion.

For huge swathes of those who voted yes there will have been little joy in seeing the number of abortions that took place. This is not a happy subject. More than most countries we had cultural and religious baggage that meant jumping that hurdle to remove the Eighth Amendment in the referendum was a massive step. People wanted solutions. We made emotional trade-offs, but decided ultimately to be caring and humane. So many of us knew women who’d had to travel for abortions and understood the pain that involved.

So if you look askance at those 6,666 abortions you may need to remind yourself you voted yes at that time for the women in your life that you loved and cared for, and did not want to see them having to undergo undue suffering by travelling to another country at a time when they were especially vulnerable. There are also a significant number of people who are simply pro-choice who voted yes, and for whom the right to an abortion is just an automatic entitlement for women who must be in charge of their own reproductive rights.

During the referendum campaign Irish people listened to these women and their stories, some of them heartbreaking. They told of their experiences of having “to travel”. But they also listened very closely to doctors who spoke in terms of women needing care in their own country.

They are two exceedingly different subjects, yet the common ground between Covid-19 and Ireland’s abortion referendum, are the exceedingly high levels of trust that Irish people had and continue to have, in the medical profession.

It has been interesting to see how the high level of trust in doctors has been so much to the fore during these last few months of the pandemic. It is hardly unusual for people to want medical and scientific advice at such a time, but opinion polling has repeatedly shown very high levels of approval for the advice that has been dispensed and observed. Similarly the manner in which the medical profession stepped up during the abortion referendum, carrying consistent messaging, ultimately ensured its success.

The pandemic also brought to the fore what a horror story it would have been for women if the law had not been changed and no one would have been able to travel for a termination over such a long period of time. According to An Garda Síochána there was a 25% increase in reports of domestic violence during lockdown. There is no doubt but there will be women included in those figures who will have become pregnant against their will, who would not have been able to travel for an abortion either, but could now get one at home.

Following the publication of the report executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, Colm O’Gorman, pointed out there remain some serious gaps in the legislation. Statistics published by the UK’s department of health and social care in early June revealed that 375 women and girls travelled from Ireland to access abortion services in England and Wales in 2019.

“We know that women’s health and wellbeing are harmed when they have to travel for abortion, and people voted to end that very harm.” Next year we are due to have a review of our abortion laws and how they operate. Hopefully ahead of that we will have legislation for exclusion zones outside hospitals and other healthcare centres where anti-abortion protesters gather to hassle and intimidate women.

Abortion will never be an easy subject to discuss. But we can hold up our heads that we finally faced it head on two years ago. This week’s figures may not rest easily with many people, but the availability of abortion to Irish citizens is a sign of a mature society.

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