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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 14 December, 2018
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Column: The debates on abortion in the Dail won't change the reality Irish women face every day

Politicians philosophising within the walls of the Dail might have felt like they were doing something important – but restricting abortion doesn’t stop it from happening: it simply makes it an issue of economic inequality, writes Nick Beard.

I WASN’T AT the Dail last Wednesday night. I wasn’t there on Thursday night either. And though I was heartened to see the protesters in front of the Dail, reminding TDs about the women they are representing, my reality couldn’t have felt farther away from the Dail.

That Wednesday was my first day of the week as an Abortion Support Network phone volunteer – meaning that for the next week, I would be answering calls from women who were seeking practical information and financial support about accessing an abortion in England.

From calm to incoherent – callers display a range of emotions

My first call on Wednesday was from a woman who was frantic because her abusive partner had stolen her passport. “He’s told me he’ll kill me if I have an abortion,” she told me. In all the Dail debates, I never once heard discussion about the real and substantial risk to life a pregnant woman might face from a partner. As a result, I walked the woman through the process of flying without a passport. She cried with relief when we told her we’d be able to give her a small grant towards the price of her procedure.

The woman I spoke to on Thursday night was far from hysterical. The mother of four young children, she explained to my quite calmly that her husband was out of work and relying on benefits, she was a stay at home mother and she was terrified that she’d be unable to feed her children if she brought a baby into the home. In fact, she was already skipping meals to make sure her children had fresh fruit. She then explained to me the various plans she had for trying to induce her own miscarriage. “You have literally saved my life”, she told me.

I remembered hearing Peter Matthews talking about supporting women with crisis pregnancies. Funny that his “conscience” didn’t bother him when agreeing with Fine Gael austerity cuts – cuts to services which would have made all the difference for this woman in continuing her pregnancy.

Continuing her pregnancy seemed too painful

A woman called me the next day, almost incoherent. I was the first person she had told about her foetus’s diagnosis of Edward’s Syndrome. How much courage must it take to call a stranger in another country on the phone and beg them for advice and money to terminate your pregnancy? She asked me if she’d have to tell her GP that she had an abortion. I explained that her GP was required to give her post-abortion care, regardless of his feelings on the morality of abortion. She was emphatic – he was active in the pro-life movement and she felt that she would never be able to trust him with her care if she informed him of it.

How long did it take TDs to push a button against an amendment to include fatal foetal abnormalities in the Protection of Human Life Bill? Five seconds? Ten? This woman will have to spend the rest of her pregnancy constantly waiting for a miscarriage. The grand pronouncement of Fidelma Healy-Eames on the sanctity of life seem to belong to a different world than this sobbing woman afraid to tell her doctor, her friends and family that she found continuing her pregnancy to be too painful.

Is there a ‘typical’ woman who calls the Abortion Support Network?

I’m frequently asked if there’s a typical woman who calls the ASN phone. The short answer is, yes and no. There are certain things all the woman have in common – primarily that they are all in extreme financial difficulties (after all – why else would you throw yourself on a stranger’s mercy for an abortion). In a representation of the current situation in Ireland, many are relying on a greatly reduced income.

Many are mothers, who speak about their love for their children and fear that another child would hurt their family. Many are in committed relationships. Several are rape survivors, some of them very young (I remember the mother who fed her three children beans on toast for three weeks to raise EUR200 towards the cost of her 15 year old’s abortion.) The one thing they all have in common is that they are far from the stereotype of women who have abortions to go on a foreign holiday or to fit in a nice dress for a wedding. Women have sold family jewellery, risked eviction by skipping rent payments, sold their televisions, cut off their land lines, sold their cars and returned Christmas presents to pay for abortions.

To some, the idea of ‘choice’ is not about ideal options but survival

What the people debating the law fail to acknowledge is that all their arguing doesn’t matter. The law doesn’t matter because it is a proven fact that making abortion illegal or restricting it in any way doesn’t stop abortion but simply makes abortion an issue of economic inequality. Wealthy women can easily get a flight to England and stay to receive consistent aftercare.

Women barely eeking out a living to feed their family, women who will be most affected by cuts, these are the women for whom the idea of “choice” becomes less about ideal options and more about survival. Women who, if denied access to a legal abortion, will wash down extra birth control pills with bottles of gin and try to crash their cars to miscarry. Women who are currently relying on aftercare from GPs who at best, look the other way at their “miscarriages” and at worst, condemn and shame them.

The legislation will have no effect on the lives

Last year, 12 women a day travelled to England to access an abortion – the Abortion Support Network only heard from 361 of them. The legislation passed by the Dail after so much discussion will have no effect on the lives of the 12 women who will travel today, or the 10 women ASN heard from this week. They’ll get on buses, ferries and planes tomorrow morning – still afraid to tell anyone in their lives that they too are “getting the boat to England.”

Hopefully, some women will benefit from the legislation passed on Thursday , if even one suicidal young girl in care or cancer survivor can receive treatment at home. But for the majority of women on the other side of the phone, only a broader debate will even remotely relate to their lives and their choices.

Nick Beard is a phone volunteer, host and tweeter for the Abortion Support Network – an all volunteer organisation which provides practical and financial support for women living in Ireland and Northern Ireland travelling to England to access an abortion.  Follow them on Twitter at @abortionsupport or visit the website at www.abortionsupport.org.uk.

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