Opinion: City Break Abortions

Rachel McCrum talks about the difficulty faced by Northern Irish women, like her, in accessing safe and legal abortions. In light of Savita Halappanavar’s recent death in the Republic, she asks: isn’t it time for change?

Feature by Rachel McCrum | 10 Dec 2012

There is a particularly grotesque sort of package holiday on offer to women in Ireland and Northern Ireland at the moment. For £350 (420 euros), women are provided the choice of a clinic in Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Essex or London. Advice is offered on the nearest airport and a taxi will be provided, although those wishing to take up this offer must book their own flights and local accommodation. If you live in Ireland or Northern Ireland and you find yourself in need of an abortion, that’s as good as it gets.

Abortion has been kicked around like a political football in 2012. In the UK Maria Miller, Minister for Women’s Issues and Equalities, and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt both stated they would like to see the legal limit for abortion in Scotland, England and Wales reduced to 20 and 12 weeks, respectively. The US elections saw Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan make startlingly conservative statements around women’s health. Most recently in Ireland, there was the death of Savita Halappanavar due to blood poisoning from a miscarriage. It has been suggested by her husband that her death could have been avoided had the hospital aborted the 17-week-old foetus, though the Irish Health Service Executive has launched an independent inquiry.

In the UK, current law (under the 1967 Abortion Act) states that abortions are legal until the 24th week of pregnancy, which is roughly the sixth month.  Any woman can approach her GP and be referred to the nearest NHS hospital where, in my experience anyway, competent and sympathetic professionals will make an essentially unpleasant ordeal as unstressful as possible. 

The Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. The procedure is virtually illegal in the Republic of Ireland, though in light of Savita’s death the Dail are debating whether legislation should be clarified. Northern Ireland, too, exists in a dark hazy hinterland of rights, where abortions are technically legal but practically inaccessible.

Access to safe, legal abortions encompasses issues of feminism and faith; of the political, cultural, social and political controls exercised over a woman’s body; of beliefs in the sanctity of life. It includes issues around the rights of the male partner, the responsibilities of providing for a child, and the twin issues of rising birth rates and global overpopulation.

Yet, in Northern Ireland the barriers are more prosaic. Lack of education and access to help, as well as the high cost and social stigma are prevalent enough that these ‘higher’ issues often become null and void. It’s hard to debate the sanctity of life with yourself when you know that you don’t have £400, and your parents/family/neighbours/church are likely to disown you if you ask for help.

A few years ago, I helped a younger friend and his seventeen-year-old girlfriend travel to England so that she could have an abortion. They felt that their own parents could not be involved. They were afraid to discuss it with them, but they needed help with the money. A volunteer run advice centre in Belfast had helped them to book an appointment in Liverpool. Sending them on their way with £200, a fierce hug, and a new soapbag, the experience felt obscene. 

Last year I had my own abortion. I’m at an age and a stage where I did consider the possibilities of continuing the pregnancy and raising a child. But given my situation at the time – single, living far from my family, and financially unstable – I came to the decision that I could not responsibly provide for a child.

I’m not going to pretend it was an easy decision or experience. The method of choice for someone at my stage, a medical abortion induced via pills, is painful and messy. I would also now question the advice given to me to return home and let things take their course in my flat, but it was the right choice, both for me and for a baby I could not have provided for.

What is completely clear to me is that knowing that I had access to a free, defined, safe route to an abortion meant that making that decision was something I could do with a clear head. I didn’t have to worry about money, since for all the admirable work that they do an initial ‘unplanned pregnancy’ consultation at a Marie Stopes clinic still costs £80. The aforementioned abortion package itself £350 on top of that… Researching this article, I was horrified to discover that the modern day equivalent of back street abortions are the aforementioned ‘medical abortion’ pills ordered online. If they are what they say they are.

Pro Choice Galway are demonstrating for a review of abortion legislation in Ireland. Savita Halappanavar’s death means the world is watching. It’s about bloody time. 

ProChoice Galway: http://www.facebook.com/GalwayProChoice