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Abortion In Northern Ireland: The Grassroots Network Railing Against The 'Barbaric' Treatment Of Women

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The 1967 abortion act does not apply to Northern Ireland
The 1967 abortion act does not apply to Northern Ireland

Every year women scrimp, save and lie to their families just to get access to basic healthcare.

Some sell their pensions, use a loan shark, beg strangers for help or pawn their engagement rings. It doesn't sound like 21st century Britain but last year, there were more than 1,000 of them. The reason? They were getting an abortion, and they were from Northern Ireland.

The 1967 Abortion Act act, which legalised abortion in England, Wales and Scotland, does not apply in Northern Ireland, making it almost impossible for women there to get an termination on the NHS, even in the case of rape or incest.

Mara Clarke has heard from more than 450 such women in the last three years, each one with a different story - and a different reason for asking for help.

The founder and coordinator of the Abortion Support Network, a volunteer run group inspired by similar grassroots network in the US, which helps fund women in Ireland and Northern Ireland to get terminations, says women are often forced to borrow money to travel to mainland Britain alone and in secret for a terminations.

So why did she set it up? That’s not the right question, she says.“The question is, why in 2012 does an organisation like us have to exist? The people in Ireland are barbaric and inhuman towards women without financial means,” she said.

“If a woman in Northern Ireland gets pregnant, she has to pay for a private abortion, and travel, and lie to people. It is almost impossible to get an abortion in Northern Ireland.”

For Gillian Nicheallaigh, a 37-year-old ASN volunteer originally from Ireland, it’s about helping women who are in the same position she found herself in almost 20 years ago when she travelled to Britain as a student to have an abortion.

She said the experience was “made much more difficult by how it's treated and the secrecy.” She had to borrow money and get help from her boyfriend at the time, describing the experience as “awful.”

“I still find it absolutely unbelievable, incredible and disgusting it's nearly 18 years, 17 years since I experienced what I had to go through, young girls, women, students are still in the same position. I'm aghast,” she says.

"Everyone has always assumed that if you have an abortion you carry a shame with you. I carry neither. Emphatically it was the right decision. I have no shame.”

But in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, not everyone feels the same: “I know grown, adult women who are parents basically collapsing under the pressure of the secrecy they have to exist within because they felt they couldn't tell anybody for fear of the stigma. They are worried their friends would treat them differently,” she says.

“I think a lot of women in Northern Ireland don't realise they have the same legal rights as the rest of the British citizens and are faced with just as much stigma.”

Clarke says the stigma can be toxic: “Some of these women won’t tell anybody they’ve been raped because they are scared someone they know would hear.

“We have been contacted by the mothers of at least two young people who were so terrified they tried to self abort. One of them, her daughter had taken medication to try to abort but she was still pregnant,” she says. “These are desperate women begging a stranger in another country for help.

“There just seems to be this huge culture of shame. This idea that oh, you had sex, you are a dirty slut, the punishment is motherhood.”

Then there are tales of women who have had the word murderer painted across their houses by boyfriends who have found out, or who have had to beg, borrow and steal just to fund a termination.

According to the ASN, women sell their pensions, use money lenders, don’t pay their rent, return Christmas presents and sell their engagement rings.

“What would you do if you were desperate? The majority of women already have at least one child, they range from 14 to their late 40s,” Clarke says.

“I can’t even tell you the number of times the words recession, redundant, unemployment comes up.”

“Everyone says Ryan Air’s cheap - not when these women need to fly, it isn’t.”

Audrey Simpson, the director of the family planning association (FPA) in Northern Ireland says they have protesters outside their building, which offers pregnant women counselling, almost every day - some calling women murderers and following them down the street.

Simpson says the protesters feel emboldened in Northern Ireland because the "argument has been won" in mainland Britain.

"They say Northern Ireland is the last bastion to create an abortion-free state. They're determined the law will not be liberalised in every way."

As for any law change, they've been involved in a near-11 year legal process just to get guidelines distributed to obstetricians in Northern Ireland.

"Some terminations are legal here, to protect the life of the mother. That's a very wide-ranging definition and clinicians don't know how to interpret that.

"We went to court in June 2001 firstly to get the law clarified and secondly to get guidelines sent to obstetricians. It's taking 11 years to get a good practice guidelines."

For now, Simpson says the women are the ones suffering: "If you're being forced to leave your country to do something your country is subtly saying what your doing is wrong. They have gone through a school system and a church system where more often than not that abortion is murder."

She says the ASN is she only network she knows that help women financially, but warns “this problem is going to get increasingly worse.”

"Women can't be open. Northern Ireland has a large village mentality, so you have to go to the airport and if you see someone you know you have to lie. It's totally ludicrous, we are UK citizens so what's different about women in Northern Ireland?

"I think women are now becoming, as the economic situation bites, are becoming more vocal and saying 'why as women are we being punished' just because we happen to have an unplanned or a crisis pregnancy.”

BPAS, the biggest abortion provider in Britain, acknowledge that there a problems. Public Policy Manager Abigail Fitzgibbon said the situation is “deeply unfair.”

"I think the thing about abortion in Northern Ireland is that it's clear from the abortion statistics that women who live in Northern Ireland do have abortions.

“Because they cannot access them legally at home they end up travelling to England. It's not the case that there's no need for them, they have to travel and it can be extremely expensive and distressing.”

Clarke doesn't want to just help teenagers who have have been raped "though we have plenty," she wants to help everyone who needs support to get a termination.

“This isn’t a moral thing, it’s a class issue. If you have money it’s not a big deal, you have a passport, you have a credit card. Women without money can just have a baby,” she says.

A letter from a 42 year old mother-of-three not originally from Ireland who used the network shows just how much their help is needed.

“I didn’t really know what an odyssey I had to experience in order to have an abortion, living in Ireland,” the woman writes.

“Thank God, my GP was very understanding and I was able to get an appointment with a family planning clinic the next day. It was so reassuring to find understanding and guidance there. Up to that moment I hadn’t even thought about financing this.” When the bank refused to extend her overdraft, she went to Clarke.

Now, for the first time demand for their help has meant they’ve had to turn women who cannot afford to pay for an abortion away.

The FPA’s Simpson says that as effects of the recession worsen in Northern Ireland, more women who cannot afford to pay for an abortion or travel abroad will resort to “unsafe” practices like buying abortion pills online.

“The recession is beginning to really bite here and they've heard you can buy early medical abortion pills on the internet and some are resorting to that. The BBC investigated this and found some of the pills women were buying were not those pills.”

So are women putting their health at risk? “The abortion pill is a very safe drug but it is prescribed under medical conditions, it's not to be taken in their own homes”

Clarke, a former US resident, says there are small signs that the attitude toward termination is changing in mainland and Northern Ireland. In the north it’s acknowledged a small number of terminations do take place every year, mostly in the case of foetal abnormalities.

But she wants to more change: “We wish that more people would realise when you criminalise abortion it’s poor women you are hurting. For most women, what really causes the distress is the fact they can’t access services. Their test is positive and their world just collapses.”