Anti-choice campaigners in Ireland like to insist that there is no ‘need or desire for abortion in Ireland’. Except, not only are they wrong, but were they right, it does not mean it should be unavailable for those who do need or want it. According to official figures over 4,000 women and girls travelled to England and Wales last year to have an abortion, and more than 152,000 have done so since 1980.
This number is large enough, too large in fact, but when you consider that many women and girls will give a false address, either out of fear of reprisal or to reduce the costs, then this number grows again. Indeed many now travel elsewhere in the EU to receive this care. It’s estimated that 1,470 travelled to the Netherlands between 2005 and 2009. Also, with internet access and online shopping being so widely accessible, many people will illegally get abortion pills delivered to their front door (so long as Irish customs don’t seize the package).
Is access a problem then?
Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about it so much. Women can still get abortions, they just have to travel elsewhere for it. Except that’s not always true. It was significantly delayed in the X-case and resulted in the 14 year old girl miscarrying instead. Savita Halappanavar died when she was denied an abortion, even though the foetus was known to be unviable, being told at one point, “This is a Catholic country.” Countless other women and girls have either had to receive dangerous, ‘backstreet’ abortions; or have tried to cause their body to miscarry as a result of heavy use of alcohol and other drugs, or have self-inflicted physical abuse; or carried the unwanted and potentially dangerous pregnancy to term because they felt they couldn’t have an abortion due to pressure from their family, friends, community or church.
Another reason women and girls won’t get an abortion is their inability to pay for it. Having an abortion is obviously a time sensitive issue and so arrangements need to be made at short notice, making them both difficult and expensive, from transport to accommodation, getting time off work or school and organising childcare, to the procedure itself. This means that paying for an abortion, something which should be free, safe, legal and local, is impossible for many working class women across Ireland.
Access to abortion is a class issue. This should be an important and uniting cause for those struggling for workers’ rights in Ireland and beyond. In particular, anarchists, those fighting for total freedom from oppression, opposing state control and destruction of hierarchy in its many forms, see women being forced or pressured into pregnancy and motherhood against their will as something utterly detestable and in need of being remedied one way or another.
What is currently being done?
Recently Belfast saw the first sexual and reproductive health clinic, which provides medical abortions within the limits of current Northern Irish law. The reaction from the anti-choice and religious right was fairly predictable: wholly absurd hyperbole, exaggeration and outright lies teamed with conspiracy theories. Equally predictable was the response not just from those with disturbing placards and petitions, but from the politicians and parties as well. It resulted in hearings in which Marie Stopes International was somehow blamed for Northern Ireland’s lack of regulation and oversight, and a last minute amendment being rather strangely tacked onto the end the Criminal Justice Bill.
So much of the response, especially from the politicians, was religiously based, with Jonathan Bell MLA standing in the assembly during the amendment debate attacking others and calling into question how good a Protestant they were, praying to his god for forgiveness, and making direct comparisons to the holocaust. It would be laughable if it wasn’t having such a terrible effect on people’s lives… but I guess that’s just politics in general.
While the attempt to maintain women’s lack of rights in Northern Ireland was going on, there was talk in England about reducing the term limits and Republicans in the US were rolling back 40 years of progress by either making abortion practically impossible or in some cases attempting to illegally make it illegal (I repeat, that’s politics). Very recently legislation has been proposed in the Republic that, while clarifying the current law, would not at all extend it and would force women to essentially plead their case before a panel of 3 to 6 physicians.
While Sinn Féin helped to defeat the anti-choice amendment, they have also come out to say they are not a pro-abortion party. The DUP and SDLP all voted for the amendment, and the other parties, while they have spatterings of pro-choice members or may even have a pro-choice policy, tend to be so small in terms of elected representatives as to be nearly ineffectual. Of course all of this is null and void when we consider that we shouldn’t be looking to politicians to sort out our problems for us.
So what can we do?
Groups such as Doctors For Choice, Alliance For Choice and Anarchists For Choice, have been pushing for change for many years now in various different efforts and campaigns, the latest of which are a petition for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act and a letter of criminal admission. While usually wary of petitions, I think that this one is quite useful, because it dismisses this idea that abortion isn’t wanted here, and likewise the letter (which is an admission of either having used the pill or having helped women get or learn about it, punishable by life imprisonment) does away with the delusion that it doesn’t happen here.
There are also groups like Women On Web and Abortion Support Network who help women access medical abortions or help pay for, and get support during, an abortion in England. These people and actions can use all the support they can get, irrespective of how politicians feel they should vote to get re-elected. Get round the system and help your sisters.