Supporting Abortion Rights Throughout the UK

This is a guest post by Hannah. Hannah is a writer and activist in sunny London town. She blogs about gender, disability, and whatever else is sticking in her teeth, over at give the feminist a cigarette.

Being a UK lady-blogger and reading predominantly US blogs, when reading about abortion in the States, you succumb to a feeling of intense relief and – it has to be admitted – insufferable smugness.

“Oh, you wacky Americans, with your testifying foetuses and ‘forcible rape’ clauses! Your Hyde Amendment and your clinic bomb attacks! Thank heavens,” we sigh, “that we live in such an reproductive-rights-loving climate where religion does not dictate what happens in our baby-makers. Sure, it’s not exactly an abortion-on-demand paradise round here, what with two doctors having to agree that continuing your pregnancy will send you mad, bad or sad before they’ll sign you off for the prodedure. Sure, we have oddball MP Nadine Dorries, who’s apparently trying to use her entire political career to reduce the abortion time limit and bring in abstinence-only sex ed, but she’s in a tiny minority, and abortion’s still legal in the UK, so what’s the problem? Everything’s fine, right?”

Well, yes, everything’s dandy – if you’re from mainland Britain. But in many parts of the UK, things are very different. The law is much more restrictive in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, where abortion provision is limited or even non-existent. In Northern Ireland, terminating a pregnancy is illegal in almost every circumstance (including where the pregnancy results from rape, or will cause serious illness). Women in Northern Ireland pay the same taxes as I do, the NHS operates in the same way there as it does here – and yet they are not entitled to this key aspect of health care.

Similarly, abortion remains illegal in the Republic of Ireland, except in notoriously fuzzily-defined circumstances: one of the plaintiffs in the recent ABC Case was suffering from a rare form of cancer which would have proved fatal had she continued the pregnancy – yet she was unable to find a single doctor who was willing to sanction an abortion.

They can, of course, nip across the water and have the procedure here. Which is super! If they can come up with the cash for flights, accommodation, and the abortion itself, at a moment’s notice! Which isn’t a big deal, right? I mean, who among us couldn’t lay their hands on anywhere up to £2,000 just like that? It wouldn’t be that traumatic to travel hundreds of miles from home – probably alone, because who could you tell? – to undergo a medical procedure in a strange city where you don’t know anyone. Right?

Which is where I start to plug. Denizens of Feministe, I give you: the Abortion Support Network.

We are a tiny grassroots charity offering grants, accommodation, and support to women who are forced to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland to access a safe abortion. We’re entirely volunteer-run, our budget is miniscule, and we’ve nearly run out of money once this year already – so if you have a spare pound/dollar/euro rattling around, feel free to throw it our way! Check out the events page for future get-togethers! And there are tons of ways you can help out, wherever you are – just give us a shout.

It never ceases to amaze me how little awareness there is in the UK about Irish/NI abortion law. So please, pass it on – tell your friends, retweet our pearls of wisdom, bring up the subject over Sunday lunch with the in-laws (“Hey there, Right-Wing Uncle Alan! Let’s talk fallopian tubes.”) – every little helps.

Thousands of women make this journey every year – at least 1,123 from NI in 2009, and 4,422 from the Republic. But it’s not the numbers that break my heart. It’s the individual stories. The mother of two who had recently migrated from Eastern Europe, who couldn’t speak English and was already struggling to make ends meet. The woman who couldn’t read, so had to ask a stranger to help her read our website. The woman with mental health problems who was suffering domestic violence.

“I cannot begin to describe how scared and alone and difficult it was for me, I can only imagine most women feel the same. Nobody wants to have to make a decision like this and for most they will never have to. I will forever feel grateful for the help and support I received. Thank you all so much.”

~ 37 year old mother of 3

17 comments for “Supporting Abortion Rights Throughout the UK

  1. Aisling Kenny
    May 18, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I live in ROI; this article just sent chills down my spine. I knew all this already- we’re constantly having referendums, and debating about having referendums, so abortion’s regular editorial-fodder- but seeing it written down somehow makes the reality even more scary.
    I know a girl, my age -15- who got pregnant. We’re in a really shitty part of the country, and anyway, how’s a 15-year-old with Catholic parents going to get the amount of money needed to go to England? She drank a full bottle of gin and tried to abort it herself, in the bathtub, with a wire coathanger. Went straight through the vaginal wall and punctured an organ; if she hadn’t had a friend outside the bathroom to drive her to the hospital (nearest A&E- half and hour away- I hate this fucking town), she could’ve bled to death. Her parents still don’t know. This happened last winter. 2010. You don’t even need to cite the ‘X’ Case to see that these idiotic laws are cruel, unfair and unjust. And they don’t protect anyone. If you really, really don’t, or can’t have a baby, laws aren’t going to stop you.
    I know I’m preaching to the choir, here. I know everyone here knows all the theory and all that jazz. But hell, stories are at least as important for getting things properly across.

  2. becky
    May 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    thanks for this, hannah! i have to admit that i did not know that abortion was illegal in northern ireland, too (not just the republic of ireland) – wow…

    and i thought the german abortion law was one of the worst of EU countries (as in: abortion being offiicially illegal, but punishment – jail – will not be enforced if you get an obligatory counselling interview at a federally approved organisation, telling you about “other options” and then having to wait at least 3 days before being allowed to have an abortion performed).

    the overall situation might not be as preposterous as the measures some state legislatures are taking in the US, but there is most certainly no reason to be smug about it, or thankful for the situation in most european countries either.

  3. Kristen J.
    May 18, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    This is fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

  4. evie
    May 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    This is amazing, I’m definitely going to spread the word (I live in England). Keep up the excellent work!

    (It’s easily googlable, but the link on Abortion Support Network is broken.)

  5. umami
    May 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I’m really glad you posted about this! Coincidentally I just found them by Google and made a small donation a while back. It’s a great cause. The abortion laws in Ireland are a national embarrassment. One of many, these days, but nonetheless.

    And I stopped following Northern Irish politics as it’s just annoying but blocking access to abortion and even contraception has historically had the power to unite our irredeemable asshat politicans across the great divide.

    Yay for peace and unity.

  6. painless
    May 18, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    thanks for this – i spent much of the last 15 years living in n.i. and was always amazed how few people across the water knew that abortion was illegal there.

  7. May 19, 2011 at 1:56 am

    AWESOME. Very Jane-esque.

  8. Biffy
    May 19, 2011 at 2:04 am

    I didn’t know!! Well done you for making a difference and highlighting such an atrocious disparity in human rights

  9. May 19, 2011 at 2:20 am

    I do support the Abortion Support Network (ever since I first heard Ann Rossiter speak -she wrote Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The ‘abortion Trail’ and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000). I signed a petition that was live around the time of the 2010 General Election, appealling to the government for Northern Irish women to have their abortions on the NHS like British women on the mainland. (And then David Cameron shut down the Prime Minister’s petition site and has not started it up again, after all we have so much more to complain about now….)

    That petition was denied. But what I’d like to see start moving is an even more ambitious goal – we won’t get it with the Tories in power, so we need to start talking about it now to people who will be MPs in the next change of government:

    Have every Irish woman who comes to the UK, get her abortion on the NHS.
    Northern Irish women should get this as of right, it’s wickedly absurd that they don’t. But why not for women from the Republic of Ireland, too? The Irish government boasts of its virtually zero abortion record, ignoring that the abortion rate in Ireland is low because (and only because) Ireland exports its abortions to other countries. I want the UK government to make a statement about this that the Irish government cannot ignore, and I want that statement to be performing abortions on the NHS for Irish women, and then billing the Irish government for them at the end of the financial year. (Obviously, with due regard for the confidentiality of the patients.)

    I doubt if the Irish government would pay it. But it would force them to acknowledge that they do not have a zero abortion rate. They just pretend they do while getting other countries to do Irish abortions for them, and not paying for it.

  10. Kelly
    May 19, 2011 at 6:10 am

    Living here in the UK when I see the gradual erosion of abortion laws in the US – I don’t feel smug. I feel scared. Especially when I hear about the ways in which our abortion laws are being challenged. Thank you for your links – I can now support abortions rights and help those whose provision is non-existant and hopefully do something to keep abortion safe. legal and rare.

  11. Avida Quesada
    May 19, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Hi thanks for the note.
    This is link I found with info of the situation in Europe, It’s hard to believe that in countries recognized as more progressive we have some many restrictions, and that few countries place barriers on women autonomy after just 12 weeks:

    Here is a couple of links that probably is more succinct on the issue with Nadine Dorries and abortion:

  12. Clare
    May 19, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Avida Quesada – that BBC link is amazing, and gives me a big sad. I had assumed that the rest of Europe would be ahead of the UK but it’s really not the case. ‘A panel of four people’ to approve an abortion after 12 weeks in Denmark?

    Hannah, thanks for highlighting the fantastic work of the ASN – I will be donating today. I’d like to open up my house to Irish women too, except I’m just about to move to Germany. When I’m there, I hope I don’t have to have an abortion and face the required ‘counselling’. (Aside: why do they call it ‘counselling’, when what they mean is ’emotional blackmail’? I may be quite angry about this..)

  13. Yonmei
    May 19, 2011 at 8:04 am

    ‘A panel of four people’ to approve an abortion after 12 weeks in Denmark?

    To be fair: Worldwide, 90% of abortions take place before 12 weeks. That figure rises steeply in any country where women who want abortions have immediate access – or even in the US. It is almost certainly the case in Denmark – and obviously where women don’t delay abortions because they’re trying to figure out how to pay, as is the case in Ireland and in the US.

    In the UK, in practice women have abortion on demand (and usually on the NHS, though there is a postcode lottery effect) but in principle a woman who wants an abortion has to convince two doctors that it would be bad for her health (mental or physical) to have the baby. The panel of 4 in Denmark may well be more restrictive in principle than in practice.

  14. Lucy
    May 19, 2011 at 9:52 am

    I had to have an abortion several years back (I’m in the UK). I do not remember speaking to anyone other than the doctor in the family planning walk in centre that I visited. I told her there was absolutely no way in hell I was going to have the baby and she referred me to an abortion clinic. That was it I think. She did try to make me think about keeping it but not very strongly as my mind was already made up! I was then advised on several long term contraception methods and had the implant put in. It was very simple for me.

    It makes me extremely sad to hear about women who are basically forced into having a baby that they do not want. How awful that abortion can still be illegal if the pregnancy is a result of rape, or if the pregnancy could prove fatal for baby/ mother. This is just wrong. Actually, it is just wrong to deny a woman the choice in the matter of accidental pregnancy.

    Very nicely written post Hannah.

  15. May 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    @Aisling – that’s horrific, was she okay? It’s absolutely heartbreaking to know that there are so many women in similar situations and there’s no way we can help them all.

    @Becky – I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know that about German law, thanks for the info!

    @evie – whoops, my bad – thanks.

    @Yonmei – that’s an AMAZING idea! I can’t see the law in ROI getting any more liberal in the near future (it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with following ABC, though) but that would make a massive difference. I’d be really keen to help out with the campaign – let me know what I can do!

    And to everyone else, thanks so much for reading and commenting :-)

  16. Zistane
    May 19, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    I wonder how the twelve weeks thing functions with the NT test? Most Nuchal screenings require a combined blood screening around nine weeks with an ultrasound that takes place around the twelfth week. You then get your Downs Syndrome chance, and decide whether to go onto CVS or amnio screening (so someone who is 1 in 32,000 would be advised not to do CVS due to the miscarriage rate, someone who is 1 in 12 would be advised to do it).

    This screening doesn’t just pick up likelihood for Downs, but also for much more fatal trisomy disorders. Do they still permit you to abort after twelve weeks if you’ve a confirmed massive trisomy defect such as T18? Most women in Australia choose to abort if they discover a serious disorder at this point in order to avoid pain for themselves and the fetus. But you’d be after twelve weeks.

    Not that abortion rights aren’t under threat in Australia – they are, as I know well, being someone going in for my NT ultrasound next Monday. There was some bloody awful article recently about anti-abortion protesters claiming they were filming women outside clinics for their own safety (filming you. Keeping the footage). It turns out that apparently if you’re threatening and screaming ‘murderer’ at a woman entering a clinic, sometimes a supportive partner will lose his or her temper and try to shove you out of the way. Really? I never would have guessed.

  17. Sean
    May 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Just the figures (population and referendum) with regard to the Republic of Ireland on the issue of abortion for anyone who is interested upon reading this article.

    Right to Life

    “The Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1992, proposes to amend Article 40 of the Constitution by the addition of the text here following to subsection 3� of section 3 thereof:

    It shall be unlawful to terminate the life of an unborn unless such termination is necessary to save the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother where there is an illness or disorder of the mother giving rise to a real and substantial risk to her life, not being a risk of self-destruction.”



    Irish Population

    2,121,171 male 50.029%
    2,118,677 female 49.97%

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