During the summer of this year, the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme (then known as the Crisis Pregnancy Agency) said that there had been a fall in the number of Irish women travelling abroad for abortion services. During 2001, at the height of the Celtic Tiger, 6,673 women gave Irish addresses to abortion clinics abroad when availing of services. This dropped to 4,422 in 2009. Despite an overall decrease in numbers, figures for under-16s seeking abortions actually increased. Some of these women went to Britain; some went further afield to the Netherlands. Crisis pregnancy and post-abortion counselling services have expanded by over 55% according to the Crisis Pregnancy Programme and at least 12 women a day leave this State to seek abortions elsewhere. These figures do not include the number of women who provide British addresses to British clinics.
One of the mandates of the Programme is to decrease the number of Irish women seeking abortions by making other options more attractive, and the anti-choice lobby applauded the 2009 figures and said that they were “very encouraging”. However, what the figures did not demonstrate were the number of women who were forced to carry unwanted or unintended pregnancies to full term as a result of not being able to access or afford to travel abortion services. Neither did they tell us anything about the number of women who are availing of backstreet abortions in Ireland, or inducing miscarriages at home by ordering the abortion pill on the internet through a safe website such as Women on Web or other, possibly less ethical suppliers.
Following the publication of these figures, the Chief Executive of the Irish Family Planning Association Niall Behan said that the recession had led to more women reporting difficulty in accessing services. Finances are a major issue and it now appears that many women are caught in a catch 22 situation regarding crisis pregnancy. It is too expensive for them to raise children so they wish to opt for termination, but it is too expensive for them to get travel and get an abortion.
Now Irish women have turned to the internet for help. A Freedom of Information request submitted to the Irish Medicines Board by a pro-choice activist group Choice Ireland showed that 1,216 abortion pills were seized during 2009. What is clear about these particular figures is that these seizures represent attempted illegal DIY abortions. Had it not been for the Irish Medicines Board and Customs Authorities actions, there would have been two dozen illegal abortions here in Ireland every week during 2009. These were only the failed attempts, and while enforcement may have stopped 1,216 pills getting to the women that ordered them, it is unlikely that they could have stopped every single order.
The reality is that Irish women who want or need to terminate their pregnancy must spend large amounts of money to make the silent and lonely journey outside of Ireland to do so. Immigrant women who are in precarious residency positions may not have the choice to travel. Working class and low income women, and very young women and teenagers, can scrimp and save the money, or borrow from friends or family, or take a loan from a Credit Union or the local money-lender to make that miserable journey. Or they can do what at least a thousand of Irish women are now doing and attempt to purchase an abortifacient on the internet and make a lonely, silent journey to their bathroom to ingest pills that could contain absolutely anything. There is nothing to indicate the numbers of women who turned to different methods to procure an illegal abortion. If women are willing to take the risk of terminating a pregnancy using drugs bought online that could contain anything, who knows what other methods they are willing to use. Or more appropriately, are being forced to use by a state that does not provide safe and legal abortion services.
For a long time, many have considered the hypocrisy of making women travel for an expensive health service, criminalised on this island, to be perfectly acceptable. Minister for Health and Children Mary Harney was questioned about this and said that “we don’t provide abortion here” as it is a “decision that the people of Ireland have made“. A decision that the Minister maintains “we have to respect“, so there will not be another referendum on the issue for the foreseeable future. One has to ask whether the Minister for Health was aware of the figures of seized abortion pills at the time she made those comments. Those figures, in combination with an awareness of the number of women still travelling for abortions, displays either a complete ignorance of the situation that raises huge questions about her ability to do her job (not that these questions are not there already, but I digress) or displays a callous disregard for Irish women forced in to a situation where they are attempting to perform abortions on themselves because Ireland refuses to recognise a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body. If the Minister for Health was not aware of these figures at the time, then one has to ask why these figures were not brought to her attention by the Irish Medicines Board. Gross ineptitude on their part, or wilful holding back of information? And who in the Irish Medicines Board made that decision to withhold the information and why? Surely the seizure of enough imported drugs to carry out at least two dozen illegal and possibly unsafe abortions per week is something a Minister for Health ought to have been informed of.
Regardless, illegal abortion is now happening in Ireland. The question is, when are the Government going to do something about it? The idea that there is no demand for abortion services in Ireland is laughable. As Sinead Ahern from Choice Ireland said,
“These seizures further demonstrate that the issue of abortion has not gone away in Ireland. It is time to face up to the reality that Irish women will go to desperate lengths and take huge risks to end pregnancies they feel they cannot continue. It is time to stop turning our backs on these women.”
Criminalising abortion does not prevent it happening and if the Government had even a modicum of feeling for these women, they would hold a referendum to introduce safe and legal abortion in this State.
One other thing is certain, if women in Ireland are trying to procure illegal abortions at home at a rate of over three a day, it is only a matter of time before there is a fatality. Unsafe abortion can kill and can cause serious injury. Is the Irish Government waiting for that before it will act? It is bad enough that women in Ireland must suffer the humiliation and degradation of being prevented from accessing a treatment which is readily available in other states, but the State is now actively placing them at further risk by preventing them from availing of safe abortion services. Presumably the anti-choice lobbyists will also find this “very encouraging”.
So while Youth Defence can hysterically wave their placards at the GPO on a Saturday morning, and picket the Marie Stopes Clinic in Dublin, pray outside of the IFPA Clinic, and accuse women who had abortions of being “baby-murderers”, spineless politicians can remain silent and happy that they do not have to deal with this issue, and women must as always face the risks of not having their human rights upheld. 67,000 women die each year as a consequence of unsafe abortion. The Irish Government seems to be aiming to make sure that next year, a few of them are in Ireland.
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