On June 12, the UK Department of Health published its report on abortion statistics for 2013. The numbers show that the abortion rate fell slightly in 2013, to 15.9 per 1,000 women, the lowest rate in 16 years. A great analysis of the report was done by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and can be found here. (As an American ex-pat, I’d also like to take a moment to gloat over the fact that in England, Scotland, and Wales abortion is free on the National Health Service. No, that wasn’t a typo. FREE.)
The statistics also cover a group of women for whom abortions are not free: women who travel from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to England to access a safe, legal abortion. Abortion, while legal under extremely restrictive circumstances in both parts of Ireland—like if you can prove that birthing a baby will actively kill you—is virtually impossible to obtain in these countries. This means that, when faced with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy in Ireland, women with money have options, and women without money have babies—or, in some cases, do dangerous and desperate things.
The numbers show a reduction in the number of women from Ireland and Northern Ireland traveling to England to access a safe and legal abortion—4,481, down from 4,887—the lowest reported number since 1969. While some organizations and groups in Ireland and Northern Ireland will undoubtedly greet the news of a reduction in numbers with positive fanfare, these numbers only tell part of the story. They do not include the women who come to England and give the address of a local friend or family member, the women who travel to other countries to access abortions, or the hundreds, if not thousands, of women who obtain early medical abortion pills online from Women on Web. These numbers also do not capture the women who cannot travel—women who need but can’t get passports or visas to travel, women who can’t escape from violent partners, women who don’t have anyone who can watch their children while they travel, and women who do not have the £400 to £2,000 ($675 to $3,350) it costs to travel to England and pay privately for an abortion. If these women cannot access Women on Web, they are forced to choose between continuing the pregnancy anyway, or attempting to self-abort in much more dangerous ways.
While the Department of Health is reporting a year on year decline in the numbers of women traveling, another group is reporting an increase. Abortion Support Network (ASN) is a grassroots charity that provides financial assistance, practical information on how to organize the least expensive abortion, and accommodation in volunteer homes for women traveling from Ireland to England. We have experienced a steep increase in calls from women in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In 2013, ASN was contacted by 446 women and couples seeking support in order to access a safe and legal abortion; this is up from 363 in 2012 and 253 in 2011. We have heard from more than 250 in the first six months of 2014. Every day, ASN receives calls, texts, and emails from women and couples in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In addition to deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, these women must also find the money to pay for the procedure, which can range from £330 to £1,350 ($550 to $2,250) depending on the stage of pregnancy, plus a mandatory consultation fee, not to mention a bus to the airport, plane tickets, a passport, child care, and other costs. This cost is an especially heavy cross to bear for women in Northern Ireland. Though they are also taxpaying citizens of the United Kingdom, they are denied abortion care on the National Health Service.
The continued increase in women contacting ASN is further proof that criminalizing abortion does not end abortion—it simply makes it more difficult for poor women and families to access. (Do you hear that, Texas and Louisiana state legislators?) The sustained economic slump is making it even more of a struggle for women and families to keep their heads above water and Ireland’s severe abortion restrictions make it even harder for this group.
These are some examples of the women and families who have contacted ASN:
“My partner and I found out that the baby we’re expecting is incompatible with life, the baby has a rare abnormality and will not survive outside the womb and because of backward Irish law we don’t know where to turn.”
“I’m a mother of 3 and am in absolute shock that I am pregnant – I never wanted any more kids. My relationship is not stable enough to be having a new baby and financially I can’t afford it. I was totally against abortion but it is the only thing that I want to do. I am trying to get the money together to go if there is any help at all it would be appreciated or even if you know the best clinics or the cheapest ones.”
“Please help. I’ve tried everything to try to miscarry. I’ve been drinking excessively. I’ve tried throwing myself downstairs, and even tried to overdose. I can’t have this child. I don’t want it! I’m completely on my own. No one else knows and I’m at the end of my tether, I feel like I’m going to have a breakdown.”
“I’m a student and I’m approximately 18 weeks pregnant. I can’t financially and emotionally support a child so I’m planning on having an abortion. The problem is my partner and I have both been saving and scraping money together but we’re still short. I was enquiring as to whether we could get any assistance, be it monetary or just providing us with somewhere to stay when we get there.”
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Since opening in October 2009, ASN has heard from more than 1,400 women, couples, and families forced by Ireland’s draconian abortion laws to call a complete stranger in another country to ask for money to help pay for their abortions. Some of these women, before finding out about ASN, have taken dangerous and desperate action to try and get money together or, worse, to self-abort. Women have sold the family car, chased packets of birth control pills with bottles of vodka, rationed food for their kids, skipped meals, borrowed money from unscrupulous money lenders, returned Christmas presents, and drunk bleach trying to procure an abortion. Because no matter what the “pro-life” lobby says, there is no world where all women who become pregnant carry those pregnancies to term and everyone lives happily ever after. Women who do not want to be pregnant will try literally anything not to be pregnant.
Other than ending patriarchy and changing the beliefs of people who can’t seem to grasp that choosing not to have a child at a particular point in your life, or ever, is in itself a valid, moral decision that is, to put it bluntly, not their business, there are interim solutions. Ireland’s Abortion Rights Campaign and Northern Ireland’s Alliance for Choice are fighting tooth and nail for law reform, while groups like Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion) and Dublin Nights for Choice take less traditional approaches to raising public awareness and helping women access abortions.
The UK Department of Health numbers are not the full truth, but the people and groups working directly with women and families in Ireland know that when it comes to abortion, the statistics seldom tell the real story.