Salon.com (U.S.), May
An international abortion underground
We know all too well that women travel to neighboring
states for abortions made unavailable -- due to excess of laws or shortage of
clinics -- in their own. Some of us, or our mothers, might know someone (or "know
someone") who, pre-Roe, actually had to leave the country, heading to Mexico,
Sweden, Japan or Puerto Rico for a "vacation" that wasn't.
women in Ireland -- at least 5,000 a year -- travel to Britain, in secret, for
abortion care. Abortion is illegal throughout Ireland, as you might recall from
the tragic -- though finally resolved -- case of "Miss D."
illegal, in fact, that the law in the North goes where here it dares not, criminalizing
the procedure not just for doctors, but for women too -- carrying the penalty
of life in prison. The loophole: It is legal to travel, usually to England, if
the pregnancy is found to threaten a woman s mental or physical health. The reality:
Obviously, most women don't stop to check with the court before they call RyanAir.
from 1980-2000, a network of London-based Irish women -- an international version
of the Haven Coalition in New York City -- volunteered to provide transportation,
raise funds and open their homes to abortion seekers forced to cross the sea,
often poor, frightened and alone. A new book, "Ireland's Hidden Diaspora:
The 'Abortion Trail' and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000"
-- recently featured as "book of the day" in the Irish Times -- tells
their story. By way of context, the book also describes Irish immigration to England
during this time, the formation of Irish feminism in Britain, and the history
of Irish attitudes toward sex, contraception and women in general.
wrote this book to help break the silence surrounding the issue of abortion in
Ireland, to challenge the taboo that permeates the subject of Irish abortion,
and to show that criminalizing abortion does not decrease the number of women
who need terminations but only adds to their predicament," said author, longtime
activist and former underground member Ann Rossiter. "The book is also a
tribute to the men and women who have provided material and emotional support
for these women, and who have relentlessly campaigned for the right of women to
reproductive choice at home in Ireland."
Rossiter, who is based in
London, also answered a few questions for Broadsheet:
Explain the pertinent
laws: What is legal where, what does the National Health Service provide for in
terms of abortion, and why is Northern Ireland an exception? What about the Republic?
law on abortion in Ireland, in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, is based
on the same piece of Victorian legislation, namely the 1861 Offences Against the
Person Act. This act criminalizes abortion and lays down life imprisonment as
punishment. This is the bottom line.
However, in Northern Ireland the act
was updated somewhat in 1937 allowing for legal abortion if continuing pregnancy
would leave the woman "a mental or physical wreck." As a result, a small
number of abortion [requests] have been considered and granted by the Northern
Ireland High Court. It is acknowledged that between 70 and 100 abortions are legally
carried out each year in Northern Irish hospitals. The law is notoriously unclear
despite guidelines having been issued by the Department of Health in March 2009.
Doctors are afraid to carry out abortions for "social" [as opposed to
"health"] reasons for fear of prosecution.
The net result is that
according to official statistics, about 1,500 Northern Irish women (the total
population is over 1.5 million) cross "the water" each year for abortions
in English clinics, with overall costs being up to £1,500. Anecdotal evidence
suggests that many more women travel, giving fictitious names and English addresses,
not to mention the women who travel to the Netherlands. Unlike other types of
medical procedures, abortion is not available free in English facilities to Northern
Irish women under the National Health Service (as it is to women from the rest
of the UK), although the territory has remained part of the United Kingdom since
the island was partitioned in 1922. A combination of fundamentalist Protestantism
and conservative Catholicism has fought to stave off the British 1967 Abortion
Act being extended to Northern Ireland.
The 1861 Act was never modified
in the Republic of Ireland due to the dominance of Catholicism in the independent
state. In fact, in 1983 the law became even more restrictive when the Republic's
constitution was amended to make the right to life of "the unborn" equal
to that of the mother. A pregnancy may be terminated legally only in order to
save the life of the pregnant woman. There is no right to abortion in any other
circumstances, even where the woman has been raped.
According to official
statistics up to 5,000 women (the total population of the Republic is 4.2 million)
travel each year to abortion clinics in England. Like Northern Irish women, their
costs -- the procedure, travel, and sometimes accommodation -- are up to £1,500
[approx. $2300]. Again, like their counterparts in the North, the number of abortion
seekers may be much higher than the official figures allow, since many are known
to give fictitious British addresses or travel to other countries.
degree is this a class issue? Do women with money in Ireland just "take a
vacation" to England?
All classes of Irish women travel to England
as abortion seekers. How they get the money together, often in a very short period
of time, can be difficult in all cases. For instance, a well-heeled teenager may
find it difficult to get hold of £1,500 in a hurry without arousing suspicion.
Inevitably, low-income or unemployed women, especially lone parents, are hardest
hit. Even before the credit crunch, they found it hard to raise money through
the usual channels, like banks or building societies, and so have had to resort
to money lenders who operate in "the projects" across Ireland and charge
high rates of interest.
How did the underground come to be? What services
did it provide? Why did it come to an end?
An underground network of women
helping abortion seekers leave Ireland has probably gone on informally for centuries.
We know only bits and pieces of anecdotal evidence, given the secrecy surrounding
the abortion issue. However, the network became formalized in the early 1980s
with the formation in London of the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group (IWASG).
The group comprised of London-based Irish feminists, myself included, who provided
information on abortion facilities in England (important from the late 1980s to
mid-1990s when abortion information was outlawed in the Republic), did fundraising
to help abortion seekers in financial difficulties, collected women from the airport
or railway stations, accompanied them to the clinics, and provided accommodation
along with a sympathetic ear. This service operated over a 20-year period until
the arrival of the Internet, when women could access the information and make
clinic appointments themselves online. Also important was the arrival of the mobile
phone and cheap, frequent flights between Ireland and England, as well as the
removal in 2001 of the National Health Service requirement of overnight stay in
the clinic. Now women can come and go on the same day, flight time being only
an hour and a bit. Things are likely to change again, however, given the more
widespread use of medical abortions. Because of the demise of IWASG there is currently
no funding available to abortion seekers from Ireland on this side of the water.
some of the actual circumstances of these women's secret journeys to England and
These women encountered all sorts of unlikely, poignant, weird and
sometimes dangerous situations. In the oral history I've compiled in the book,
IWASG members have recounted some really sticky moments, like women being held
at Heathrow airport under the Prevention of Terrorism Act during "the Troubles."
Try telling the security services you are on your way to an abortion clinic when
they are convinced you are an IRA bomber on your way to blow up London.
commonplace were situations when abortion seekers and IWASG women couldn't find
each other in the crowds at the airport. It became the norm for IWASG women to
wear "fancy dress," especially long red skirts (even when the long skirt
had long gone out of fashion). Also, not unusual were situations where abortion
seekers ran into friends and relatives at the airport, or even on the flight.
enduring than any of these incidences are the secrecy and shame that these Irish
women bear. As one said to me, "Bearing a burden of shame for my country
is the heaviest load I carry."
What is the current legal and cultural
climate around this issue -- is there hope for change?
is a change of mood on the abortion issue, especially among the young, in both
parts of Ireland, but more so in the Republic, which has not suffered directly
the trials and tribulations of the recent Anglo-Irish war. A Safe and Legal (in
Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign (SLI) has been established in the Republic and
the campaign is supporting an important case three women have brought against
the state and which is currently before the European Court of Human Rights. The
women argue that their human rights were breached because they were forced to
travel abroad for abortions. This is the first direct challenge to the Republic's
abortion law before the European court, and, if successful, could bring about
The situation is more difficult in the North. There was
an attempt to attach an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill
going through the British Parliament in the last year to extend the 1967 Abortion
Act to Northern Ireland. This was filibustered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown
and notably his female cabinet ministers. A Member of Parliament, Diane Abbott,
has put down an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling on the British government to sanction
abortions being available free under the National Health Service to Northern Irish
women. At present there is insufficient parliamentary support for that move. By
year's end legal responsibility for abortion is expected to pass from Westminster
to the Northern Ireland Assembly. There, the combined forces of Unionism and Irish
nationalism and republicanism are assembled to block progressive change. It looks
as if Northern Irish women have a major fight on their hands and need all the
help they can get from their American sisters.
this page to a friend!