AS THOUSANDS of anti-choice protesters gathered for a vigil in Dublin last week, a woman in the west of Ireland was anxiously awaiting the illegal delivery of abortifacient drugs.
Claire (not her real name) was not raped, the pregnancy did not pose a real and substantial risk to her life, and she was not suicidal, although she does suffer from depression.
Even when X case legislation is eventually passed, she would never meet the very restrictive grounds to access abortion services in this country. Yet, in desperation, she found a way to induce one in her own home on Thursday. Ordinarily, Claire’s story wouldn’t count for much. It’s not something that’s discussed in the media. It’s completely ignored by politicians and, because she didn’t travel to the UK, it’s not even worth a statistic.
Her abortion will never appear on a list of official figures, but she does exist, it did happen and her story deserves to be told.
Speaking to me last week, she told me how her life started crumbling around her 18 months ago, after she lost her job.
“I own my house but I am defaulting on the mortgage and the bank is threatening to repossess,” she said. “I have a teenage daughter but can’t even afford the voluntary contribution for her school. The last time we put oil into the tank was nearly two years ago. If my daughter is cold I have to tell her to put on another jumper.
“I’m currently back in college and the workload is very heavy. It’s very tough. When I finish up, all I want to do is get my qualification and get out of this country.”
Consequently, she decided to have, what some have callously dubbed a “social abortion” — an odious neologism that conjures up images of debauched selfish women too busy drinking or shopping to continue with an unplanned pregnancy.
In reality, a termination, especially for women in this country, is never a trivial undertaking and a range of different factors inform women’s myriad decisions to end their pregnancies.
“If my situation was different, if I had a job and security, I would keep the baby. I love my partner but I know what being a parent involves and I’m just not in a position to do that at the moment,” she said.
“I know some people will be disgusted by my decision, but they don’t have to put food on the table or keep a roof over my head.”
In fact, Claire’s dire financial situation is such that, having decided to end her pregnancy, she quickly discovered that she couldn’t afford the €1,000 cost of travelling to the UK to get one. The only other option for previous generations would have been a backstreet abortion but Claire searched online for a website from which she could buy drugs to induce a medical abortion, and stumbled across a website of a non-profit group that offers assistance to women in countries where abortion is illegal. Completing the online consultation, which is then forwarded to a licensed doctor who makes a decision about whether the drugs (which can only be taken up to nine weeks’ gestation) are a suitable treatment, Claire encountered another problem.
The website no longer posts drugs to Ireland because of the number of seizures by customs officials. Instead, women are advised to have the drugs sent to nearby jurisdictions where they can be collected.
Claire, who was seven weeks’ pregnant, ordered the drugs for €100 and had them sent to the North. She collected them on Wednesday and took them at home the next day.
“I felt awful for about three hours — severe cramp and nausea — but then it was over and I felt instant relief,” she said.
Ultimately, for Claire, the worst thing about her experience was fear of the unknown — the worry that the drugs wouldn’t arrive or, if they did, that they could be harmful. Knowing all of the dangers, which include haemorrhage, infection and an incomplete abortion requiring surgical treatment, she still felt that she had no other option but to go ahead and break the law.
She’s not the only one. According to the Irish Medicines Board, the number of seizures of the abortion drugs misoprostol and mifepristone remains very high.
In 2009, 1,216 tablets were discovered while this figure dropped to 671 tablets in 2010 and 635 in 2011, although it remains unclear if this fall coincided with the decision of the website to stop delivering to Ireland. The IMB said that the sale of prescription-only medicines by mail order is prohibited, and cautioned against buying drugs online from unregulated sites.
“The IMB strongly recommends that women should not seek to obtain or self- medicate with such potent medicines. The internet is an unregulated source for medicines and there can be no guarantees that items bought online are effective, safe or of an acceptable standard or quality.”
Where does that advice leave women who are legally precluded from buying the drugs in Ireland, cannot afford to travel for a termination, and are determined to end their pregnancies? I contacted the website that supplied the drugs and a spokeswoman said Irish women would continue to use their site, or websites like it, until abortion services are legal in this country.
“Women in many countries around the world can make informed decisions and safely use mifepristone and misoprostol,” said the spokeswoman. “It is humiliating and degrading to claim that Irish women do not have the same capacity.
“Medical abortion is very similar to a spontaneous miscarriage. Twenty percent of pregnancies end in a miscarriage and most of these are handled by women themselves without additional medical support.
“Restrictions to safe abortion services do not reduce the number of abortions, they only make abortions unsafe. Equal access to safe services is a matter of social justice.”
OTHER regions, highlighted by the website and with equivalent abortion laws to this country, include vast swathes of sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern countries such as Iran. In fact, the law in Iran is more liberal, with abortion allowed in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
Perhaps our draconian laws, which, despite the scaremongering, will remain among the most restrictive in the world even after X case legislation is passed, would be easier to comprehend if it wasn’t for the inherent hypocrisy of the Irish State’s Nimby attitude to abortion.
Conservative politicians and anti-choice campaigners profess shock and revulsion at the prospect of women choosing to end their pregnancies in Ireland but are happy to ship them off to the UK, under a veil of secrecy and shame, for the same procedure.
Meanwhile, the suffering of women such as Claire who, by virtue of their circumstances, are virtual prisoners on this island, is not given a second’s thought.
Some may persist with the fiction that Irish women retain autonomy over their own bodies, but in truth that freedom only nominally exists as long as women have the financial means to flee the country.
For those who can’t, the so-called choices are invidious: Risk one’s health and a criminal record by smuggling drugs into the country or bow to State-sponsored sanctimony and continue with an unwanted pregnancy against one’s will.
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