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Opinion On the Repeal anniversary, remember the right to abortion is being eroded globally

Orla O’Connor says women’s right to safe terminations are under attack around the world.

ACROSS EUROPE, MORE than 20 million women do not have access to abortion services.

Since January 2021, at least six women have died in Poland because doctors could not intervene to save their lives. Until 2023, abortion was illegal in Malta, even when the woman’s life was at risk. Now it is legal only in those circumstances. Across much of Italy and Spain, even though abortion is legal, conscientious objection means abortion is effectively unavailable to many women.

Here in Ireland, despite the repeal vote in 2018, many women and pregnant people are still unable to access abortion. This includes women who have received a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly late in their pregnancy. That’s because after 12-weeks abortion is a crime, except where two doctors will certify that the foetus will die before it is born or within 28 days. In practice, there are almost no medics who would be willing to say this with absolute certainty. And so women and couples in these devastating circumstances must still travel.

Women who find out they are pregnant too close to the 12-week limit can also be forced to travel. This can happen for any number of reasons, including irregular periods; busy lives; contraceptive failure; or mistaking the symptoms of pregnancy for something else.

If a woman finds out she is pregnant in week 10 or 11, she will also come up against the mandatory three-day wait period. If the three-day wait coincides with services that are booked up, or comes close to weekends and public holidays, she can easily be pushed over the limit and forced to travel.

Pendulum swing against women

Across the globe, we know that there is a pushback happening, against women’s rights in general and reproductive rights in particular. In the US, the previously unthinkable happened when Roe v Wade was overturned in 2022. Poland introduced a near-total ban on abortion in 2021.

In 2022, Hungary introduced a law stipulating that any woman seeking an abortion would first have to listen to the foetus’ heartbeat. In the UK since 2018, there have been almost 60 criminal inquiries into procuring an abortion, compared with zero before.

And so in Ireland, and right across Europe, women are forced to travel for essential healthcare. At least 1117 women have travelled from Ireland to Britain for an abortion since 2018 (this figure also takes into account figures for 2023 from the Abortion Support Network, which of course only represents a percentage of women who travelled).

In Poland in 2021, more than 30,000 women sought either illegal or foreign abortions in the year since the near-total ban on abortion was introduced. An average of 57 women travel from Malta to the UK every year, and this number is likely to be a significant underestimate given the legal situation. Maltese women also travel to Italy and other neighbouring countries where figures are not available.

Unfair system

The Council of Europe has said that conscientious objection by medics can make access to safe abortion difficult. Rural women are more affected by this, and many are forced to travel long distances not only within their own country but often also abroad.

Because here’s the thing. You can’t ban abortion. You can only ban safe abortion. If women cannot access abortion at home or easily travel for abortion, then they may turn to other options. This can mean self-managing an abortion by procuring pills online or it can mean backstreet abortions.

The lack of access to abortion in many parts of Europe not only puts women at risk of physical harm but also puts undue economic and mental stress on women and families, often on the margins of society that can afford it the least.

Ultimately, the solution for women is access to safe and legal abortion across the EU. But with women’s rights and reproductive rights under attack globally, that looks unlikely in the near future.

That’s why the National Women’s Council has joined a European Citizen’s Initiative, called My Voice My Choice, which would oblige the European Commission to create a fund for women who need to travel for abortion. Together with organisations from Poland, Austria, Spain, France, Italy and all across Europe, we’re asking people to sign a petition asking the European Commission to put help women access their reproductive rights.

This campaign offers the people of Europe the chance to make women’s lives freer, safer, and better; wherever they live in our union, whatever conditions they may find themselves in.

Women deserve to be able to make choices about their reproductive lives. They deserve to access healthcare in their own country. On the anniversary of the repeal vote, join the My Voice My Choice campaign to support women who cannot.

Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council. More on the European Citizen’s Initiative can be found here.

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