Ireland: Women speak out against abortion laws

Thousands of Irish women travel to England each year as restrictive laws put them at mental and physical risk.

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Claire, Wayne and Alex [Now I Lay Thee Down To Sleep/Al Jazeera]

For weeks Claire Cullen-Delsol woke up wondering if her unborn daughter had died inside her. The baby, who was named Alex by Claire and her husband Wayne, was diagnosed with a fatal form of Patau syndrome after the 20-week scan.

The couple were told that there was no hope their daughter would survive, but because they lived in the Republic of Ireland, the only options available to them were to travel overseas for a termination, or wait until Alex died to be induced.

Rather than face travelling to England, Claire carried on with her pregnancy for another five weeks.

“I’ve never had a mental health problem before, but I think I came very close to the edge,” she told Al Jazeera.

“It just got worse and worse as time went on. Everyday I was thinking ‘when was the last time I felt movement, how much longer is it going to be?’

“Every night I dreamt about having dead babies pulled out of me, about being trapped or stuck in a bubble and I couldn’t get to my children.

“I could feel Alex getting weaker.”

Claire had to endure repeated visits to a doctor, waiting for the day they could no longer detect Alex’s heartbeat and she would be allowed an induction.

“Everything was covered in grief.”

Banned practice

In the Republic of Ireland abortion is only allowed when there is an immediate risk to the pregnant woman’s life.

Women in Ireland seeking a termination in any other circumstances, including rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) have to travel overseas or acquire pills illegally over the internet.

Medical practitioners found to be breaking the law can face 14 years in prison in the Irish Republic, or life in Northern Ireland, as can the women involved.

Claire and Wayne were only told about the option to travel when they raised it.

“Until we asked the question about termination very specifically, they wouldn’t even volunteer it as an option. I had to form the words, ‘How do I go about ending this pregnancy in another country’ which is a hard thing to even say,” she recalled.

“We were all talking in code and whispers and it was all a nod and a wink. I had to play this silly game to get the information that I needed about a really serious medical situation.

“There are women who don’t know what options they have because they don’t know the code to speak to the doctors in,” Claire said.

Figures obtained by a Belfast-based news organisation, Detail Delta, show that between 2010 and 2014, nearly 25,000 women travelled from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to have an abortion in England.

That is about 13 women each day. Nearly 20,000 of them are from the Irish Republic.

Seeking change

Claire is among a growing number of women who are speaking openly about their experiences in the hope it might eventually lead to change.

“I had two pregnancies where everything was fine without ever knowing what impact the eighth amendment could have on my rights,” she said, referring to the section of the Irish constitution that bans abortion outright.

“The fact that so many women have to leave the country to access what is a medical procedure is wrong.

“I probably would never have actively campaigned for a change until it affected me.

“Then I was faced with it myself. I thought, how can we in a democratic country allow this to go on?”

Claire and Wayne elected to stay in Ireland because they already have two young children, and Claire wanted one night when her family, including Alex, could be together.

If she had been able to be induced straight away in Ireland, she believes she would be far better off now.

“If I hadn’t had those weeks waiting in that fear and that anguish I think I would be a completely different person now. I would have been able to get over this in a way that I can’t now.

“What difference does it make to them if she was induced at 22 weeks or 26? It would have made the world of difference to me.”

Exporting abortion

For the thousands of women who do choose to take the journey, networks like Abortion Support have been set up.

Abortion Support provides advice for those thinking of having a termination, and helps financially in cases where women cannot afford to travel to England.

The flights, accommodation and procedure can cost between $650 and $2,000, which many women cannot afford.

“We give information on the least expensive way to arrange abortion and travel to England,” Mara Clarke, from Abortion Support, told Al Jazeera.

“We also give information on how to access safe but illegal medical abortion pills.”

In recent years websites such as WomenOnTheWeb have started shipping medically approved abortion pills to women in countries where they are illegal.

According to Abortion Support, the use of the pills has led to a drop in the number of women having to travel. It has also meant that women in abusive relationships are able to access abortions without raising suspicions.

Clarke said that despite being listed as safe by the World Health Organization, there was a lot of scaremongering surrounding the pills, as well as websites that claimed to supply them but instead took the money without sending anything.

“Getting the correct information to the women is really important. There are so many ways we can help reduce the costs of travel, or give financial help if it is needed,” Clarke said.

“There are a lot of agencies [in Northern Ireland] that claim to be family planning agencies, but they’re not.

“We’ve heard of more than one woman pregnant as a result of rape told by these agencies that ‘if you have the abortion you’re worse than the man that raped you and your actions will make you a murderer’. It’s insane.”

Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act. Additionally, Northern Irish women are not entitled to NHS abortions in England.

Abortions are only allowed in Northern Ireland in cases where the long-term mental or physical health of the woman is at risk.

However, the guidelines are so vague that this is rarely applied. A steep drop in abortions in recent years has been attributed to leaked guidelines from 2012 that heavily focused on criminalisation.

In 2015 there were only 16 legal abortions in Northern Ireland and 23 the year before. This is down from 51 in 2012.

Desperate measures

Abortion Support helps women from a variety of backgrounds, and has had clients ranging from 13 to 51 years of age; some have been raped or are in abusive relationships, others cannot afford another child.

Many have tried to force a miscarriage themselves.

“We’ve had a mother-of-four say to us ‘I’m trying to work out how to crash my car to cause a miscarriage’,” Clarke said.

“Women have drunk bleach, they’ve taken three packets of birth control pills with a bottle of gin, they’ve had their partner punch them in the stomach and have thrown themselves down flights of stairs.”

Clark explained that such desperate tactics are more common among poor women. 

“Women with money have options and women without money have babies or do dangerous and desperate things.” 

In November 2015, a High Court judge ruled that by not allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest and FFA, Northern Ireland was breaching women’s human rights.

The ruling stopped short of actually changing the law, instead putting the responsibility to act on the Northern Irish Assembly.

David Ford, Northern Ireland’s justice minister, said that it would lead to “abortion on demand”.

“I don’t think that’s what the people of Northern Ireland [want],” he added.

In July 2015, Amnesty International reported that two thirds of people in Northern Ireland wanted abortion decriminalised, but in February, a proposal to ease the laws in cases of sex crimes or when the foetus could not survive outside the womb was voted down by 59 votes to 40.

Anti-abortion rights group Precious Life celebrated the result.

“In the face of such ferocious pressure to legalise the killing of unborn children, they had the wisdom, the courage, and true compassion to see that abortion is not the answer,” the group said in a statement on its website.

READ MORE: Irish women sawn open during childbirth seek justice

Pro-choice politics

Despite losing the vote, pro-choice campaigners in Northern Ireland are hopeful for the future.

“We knew it was inevitable [that the vote would be lost],” Kellie O’Dowd, who campaigns with Alliance for Choice, told Al Jazeera.

“For us it is more of a benchmark for where the political parties are and how we should be campaigning up until May 6,” she added, referring to the date of the Northern Irish Assembly elections.

Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party, Sinn Fein and the Green Party had all been in favour of the amendments.

“The anti-abortion crowd is small but very loud; they don’t represent the majority of the public.”

O’Dowd was among the 215 women who signed an open letter stating that they had either taken or procured illegal medical abortion pills after two women were taken to trial in separate cases involving the pills.

O’Dowd said that one of the reasons why she signed the letter was to break the silence surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland.

“People don’t talk about abortion, and if they do it is always in terms of religion, that it is a black and white situation.

“When you start looking at the complexities of women’s lives and women who face crisis pregnancies and open up that whole debate, people start to think ‘I am pro choice’.”

The debate surrounding FFA has gone a long way to encouraging people to consider the nuances of the subject, but O’Dowd said women who simply cannot afford, or do not want a baby are still stigmatised.

“There’s still this idea that women are devious, they’re daemons, that they would lie about being raped just to get an abortion, and that they are whores as well for having sex that isn’t about procreation in the first place,” O’Dowd said.

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With an increase in the number of pro-choice political parties, O’Dowd is hopeful that abortion laws in Northern Ireland will change within her lifetime.

For Claire, however, living in a country where no politician will go on the record as being pro-choice, the situation is far more complicated.

“I wouldn’t have had the courage to say that out loud until other women started doing it. I realised there are loads of us, and we’re ignored and maybe we need to shout louder,” she said.

“But there needs to be political will for there to be change.

“Listening to the politicians now, I am so disappointed. There are people with no idea of what anyone has been through, no compassion at all, who will proudly say ‘we won’t have abortion here’, accusing women who terminate pregnancies when the baby is going to die of not wanting the hassle of a sick child.

“I didn’t want to lose my daughter, but when I had no choice as to whether she lived or died why didn’t I have the option to lose her on my own terms?”

Follow Philippa Stewart on Twitter: @flip_stewart

Source: Al Jazeera