Restrictions hit poor women first

“IRISH abortion exists. It just doesn’t take place in Ireland.”

That is the view of Socialist TD Clare Daly, who last April introduced a private members’ bill in the Dáil to make abortion legal for pregnant women whose lives are at risk.

The bill, designed to legislate for the 1992 ruling of the Supreme Court in the X case, was roundly defeated, but Ms Daly has a point.

Since 1980, when records began to be collated, in the region of 150,000 women — about 12 every day — have travelled from the Republic for abortion services in England and Wales.

Last year, the total for the 12 months amounted to 4,149 — among them 148 who were under the age of 17.

That is likely to be an underestimation of the true figure, as it only accounts for those who gave addresses in the Republic and does not include those who gave British addresses, either to mask their identity or to avail of free abortions under Britain’s National Health Service.

Nevertheless, the 2011 figures represent a fall of 7% on those for 2010 and, according to the HSE’s Crisis Pregnancy Programme, the number of women giving Irish addresses at abortion clinics in Britain dropped from 6,673 to 4,149 between 2001 and 2011.

It is unclear, however, whether the fall is as a result of improved access to contraceptives, better sex education in schools, or some other reason.

Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, attributes the reduction, particularly among teenagers, to improved access to sexual health education in schools and generally.

He also cites access to contraception, particularly emergency contraception and the provision of the morning-after pill, which has been available without prescription in Irish pharmacies since February.

However, a London-based voluntary service that specialises in assisting Irish women travelling to Britain for abortions believes that the recession has a lot to do with the reduction.

The charity, Abortion Support Network, said that tough economic conditions were making the process of accessing abortion even harder for poorer Irish women, and that official data suggesting an overall decline masked the number of women who disguised their background or took advantage of cheap flights to have abortions further afield.

Figures released in May by the department of health in Britain showed that the numbers of women from the Republic travelling to England and Wales for abortions have fallen for the tenth year in a row, but ASN, which provides economic support and accommodation for women seeking abortion in Britain, said that Irish women in financial distress were now seeking its help in increasing numbers.

“The continued economic crisis is making it even more of a struggle for women and families to keep their heads above water. and Ireland’s severe abortion restrictions make it even harder for this group,” said ASN director Mara Clarke.

The number of Irish women contacting the charity has doubled in the past two years and is expected to double again this year.

The number of calls ASN received from Irish women in the first six months of this year was 183, compared with 251 throughout 2011 and 89 in 2010.

“For the first time ever, we have had to turn women away, which is heartbreaking,” said Ms Clarke. “The ban on abortion services in Ireland means, in effect, that only women of means have a real choice. All they have to think about is where to go for a termination. Poorer women are often distraught and simply do not have the means to travel. We do what we can for them financially but we depend on donations to keep the service going and it is getting harder and harder. We have given grants of as little as £20 [€25].”

A number of private abortion clinics have also recognised the financial dilemma faced by Irish women with crisis pregnancies.

“We offer all Irish women travelling over to England for their abortion treatment with us a discounted fee because of the extra expenses they face,” states the website of British Pregnancy Advisory Service, one of Britain’s leading abortion providers.

In the meanwhile, the Government has turned to an “expert group” to deal with the ramifications of last December’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

An abortion may only be performed in the Republic in circumstances where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including risk of suicide. The European Court ruled that current Irish law breached the rights of an Irish woman who could not travel to Britain for an abortion because she was undergoing chemotherapy at the time.

That ruling could also have ramifications for the law in the North, where a similar ban applies because Britain’s 1967 Abortion Law has never been brought in there. In effect, abortion is one area where the island of Ireland is united, as the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which regards as a criminal offence anyone who “procures a miscarriage”, remains on the statute books on both sides of the border.

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