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Dublin: 17 °C Monday 3 August, 2020

Women shouldn't have to sell household items or take out short-term loans to afford an abortion

While over 90% of abortions in England are performed in the first trimester of pregnancy, fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual violence are often the exception.

Nick Beard

IN LIGHT OF the recent Northern Irish High Court judgement on abortion (specifically that abortion should be made available in pregnancies resulting from sexual violence and when there is a fatal foetal abnormality), there has been quite a bit of discussion as to what the decision will actually mean for women in the Republic of Ireland – will a limited judgement focusing on extremely specific cases really make any difference?

The first thing to note is that, at the moment, there have been no changes to the current practice in Northern Ireland. While Judge Horner’s decision was that it violates the Human Rights Act to deny abortion access to women in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or a pregnancy resulting from sexual violence, it is unlikely that abortion services will be offered without further legislative guidance from the Northern Irish executive.

In order for Irish women to be able to take advantage of the laxer abortion restrictions in Northern Ireland, a private clinic would need to offer these services to non-Northern Irish residents.

Emotional journeys 

To understand how this will affect those in the Republic, it’s important to consider the current difficulties for Irish women attempting to access abortions in these circumstances. Much has been written of the personal, heart-wrenching emotional journeys that face families with fatal foetal abnormalities.

From a practical standpoint, it is important to note that these two specific situations (sexual violence and fatal foetal abnormalities) can be the most expensive abortions to access.

While over 90% of abortions in England are performed in the first trimester of pregnancy, fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual violence are often the exception. As a phone volunteer for the Abortion Support Network, I’ve spoken to many rape survivors who could not bear to face the reality of a resulting pregnancy and clung to denial, convincing themselves that missed periods were due to emotional trauma or mental distress.

Fatal foetal abnormalities are rarely detected before 18 or 19 weeks. Once a woman is able to get a second opinion, decisions have to be made on fast-forward in order to meet the time limit. There are a multitude of arrangements to be made quickly – plane or ferry tickets have to be bought at the last minute.

Women crying down the phone 

Christmas presents a particular stressful time. Not all women can wait until January; at the moment in Ireland, there is at least one woman trying to navigate school holidays and increased airfare to fly over to England. It can be a whirl of details – I have had women on the phone crying about the difficulties involved in trying to bring home remains to bury or finding the appropriate hospital for dealing with a woman’s pre- existing medical conditions.

It’s certainly true that not all of these difficulties would be alleviated if private abortion services became available in Northern Ireland. Time would still be limited, and family members might still be unsupportive and judgemental. Yet for some women, it would be a financial saving to be able to simply drive to a clinic and later return home, accompanied by a supportive friend or family member.

It would obviously particularly benefit those geographically close to the North (women from the south of Ireland would seem to have little change in their access to services.)

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Unfortunately, the cost of the procedure would still be a stretch. In her testimony for the Northern Irish High Court, the Abortion Support Network (ASN)’s founder Mara Clarke described the two-tiered system that exists at the moment; there are those who are able to save up the thousands of euros needed for flights and a procedure on short notice and those for whom it is unmanageable.

Some women are able to receive funding from ASN, but it is heart-breaking to think that there are women who are forced solely by financial circumstances to continue a pregnancy that they find to be deeply traumatising.

 Deeply traumatising

It’s often remarked to be an “Irish solution to an Irish problem,” but that can be both true and untrue. For plenty of Irish people, who never have to hear about abortions except debates on Vincent Browne or in quiet conversations with friends, it might be deemed to be a solution. But for women who are returning their children’s Christmas gifts, selling household items or taking out short-term loans to afford abortions (all things that actual clients of ASN have done), it is far from solved.

The Northern Irish High Court decision may eventually make a difference for some Irish women; Ireland has still declined to provide any kind of support or assistance that could ease the incredible financial burden for even some of the women who travel to England every day.

Nick Beard is a PhD student and a phone volunteer for the Abortion Support Network.

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Nick Beard

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