Anti-choice campaigners in Ireland often tell women that an abortion will leave them afflicted with "permanent sighing." It won't.
I was very moved by your responses to my piece about women in Ireland having no abortion rights, especially from those of you who wanted to know what you could do to help.
To find out, I’ve interviewed representatives from organisations such as the Abortion Support Network, the Irish Family Planning Association, the Irish Feminist Network and Choice Ireland, all of whom can be contacted and donated to via their websites.
These interviews are heavily edited. I did not, despite the way it’s written up, assemble a panel. This format is just a more cohesive way of presenting the arguments. (If you’d like to read the full interviews, let me know and I will find a place to make it happen, probably on the awareness and fundraising website xoJane’s Olivia Singer and I are in the process of founding).
I requested interviews with groups who I think do the most useful work, whether it’s as service providers, advocates, or general awareness-raising when it comes to women’s rights.
Here they explain what their roles are:
Mara Clarke, Founder, The Abortion Support Network:
The Abortion Support Network is an all volunteer organization. We provide financial assistance, accommodation and volunteer homes when necessary, as well as confidential, non-judgmental information to women forced to travel from Ireland to England to access a safe and legal abortion.
There are lots of organisations working for law reform. We are the only organization that helps women afford this - it costs women between £400 - £2000 to come over. The way that we’re set up is that we’re all volunteers, so every penny that people give us goes directly to a woman who needs an abortion to have one.
If xoJane readers are interested in raising awareness of the issue, we are happy to send people packs of our flyers that they can hand out, and our fundraising toolkit, which is full of ideas of how people can raise money.
This is something that impacts a lot of women’s lives. Like, the statistic in the UK and the US is that one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime [no-one knows the number of women in Ireland who have abortions each year] so we need to take this out of the secrecy and just talk about abortion.
There are women who we are the first people that they’ve told they were raped because they’re so afraid that if they tell their loved ones they were raped that their loved ones will force them to carry a pregnancy to term.
We also had a case where there was a girl, she was 14, she did tell her mother but both she and her mother felt that they could not tell her father. Can you imagine keeping a secret like that?
And we once heard from a woman’s father. His wife had died, he had four kids and the oldest - the 19 year old girl - was pregnant as a result of rape so they didn’t pay their rent so they could afford the flights, and to cover the cost of it.
Twice we have had to give out grants of £20. So there were women who literally, it was £20 between them and an unwanted child.
A campaign flyer from the Abortion Support Network
Niall Behan, CEO, The Irish Family Planning Association:
The Irish Family Planning Association has been around for over 40 years. We have been focusing on providing sexual and reproductive health services since the late 1960s, and have also been advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights in those years.
'It started off as the first family planning clinic in Ireland when contraception was illegal and throughout the 1970s we were working on trying to get contraception legalized.
In the 1980s it was focused on responses to HIV and Aids, and then issues about abortion from 1983 onwards. At the moment we run family planning clinics and we provide counselling for women who have unplanned pregnancies, so we’ve focused in on that.
Those options are adoption, parenting or abortion, and if she chooses to go for an abortion she has to travel to the UK so we help her. We provide the information around the abortion clinics to her.
We also provide post-abortion medical care so when a woman comes back if she feels she needs a medical check-up, we provide a free medical check up for her. We’d get about five thousand calls to our hotline every year.
Stephanie Lord, Spokesperson, Choice Ireland:
Choice Ireland are a non-funded direct action pro-choice campaigns group based in Dublin. We were established in 2007 in order to counter the kind of fanatical anti-choice campaigns that are out there.
We campaign for a number of things from the provision of free, safe and legal abortion on demand to increased accessibility to contraception, enhanced sex education. But also better supports for people who want to have children. Supports for lone parents and so on.
We’re not service providers. We have information on our website in terms of where people can go to have terminations overseas.
Obviously there are legal issues around assisting women with providing abortions, so we’re an advocacy activist group. There are so many dodgy things [that surround abortion in Ireland].
There’s one legit family planning clinic in Dublin where they provide everything from women’s health screening and cervical smears but they also provide crisis pregnancy counselling. They’ve had situations where people have stood outside and if a woman was going in they’d stop her and say “Were you going on in? because the clinic is closed.
And take her round the corner in a taxi to their “place” where they show her these horrendous videos. Then hand her a doll, when she’s five or six weeks pregnant, and say, “This is your baby. Name your baby. Your baby has hair and fingernails.” And tell her things like, “if you have an abortion you’re going to get breast cancer, you’ll be a paedophile, you’ll suffer from conditions such as permanent sighing or you’ll be promiscuous.”
It’s abuse. And as long as these “clinics” don’t provide abortion information - if they only provide information in terms of adoption and carrying the child to term and raising it yourself- they’re not within the scope of crisis pregnancy legislation.
I could go and set up a pregnancy counselling clinic in my living room if I wanted to and there’s nothing within the law to stop me. As long as I don’t provide information to do with abortion I can do what I want.
The Irish Feminist Network, Emma Regan, Co-ordinator:
The IFN is a non-profit organization. We have a strategic plan with five key areas that we want to focus on. One is reproductive rights, one is prostitution and sex trafficking, one is women in public life (so getting more women into government), and another one is reclaiming the word feminism, and making it more acceptable.
Poster for Safe and Legal Ireland's Speak Out Campaign. Copyright (c) Shauna Moggan
I asked each interviewee how xoJane readers can show their support to women living in Ireland, and the pro-choice movement:
If there are people living in the UK, particularly Irish emigrants and second generation Irish, people who may return to Ireland, or those in the medical community or who have experience in these matters - just everyone, basically- contacting members of the Dail [parliament] would be really helpful because they’re inundated with fanatical [pro-life] literature and they need to be shown that there are all these Irish women, or women living in Ireland, who go overseas and have abortions.
Irish Family Planning Association:
I think that some of the articles that Carl O’Brien and Kathy Sheridan have written in the Irish Times, are certainly worth reading. O’Brien’s particularly worth reading on the European Court of Human Rights and the Michelle Harte case. There’s also an abortion timeline on our website.
Abortion Support Network:
There are lots of organisations campaigning for women so readers can absolutely get in touch with Choice Ireland, Alliance for Choice [which is a Northern Irish group], the IFPA or the Safe and Legal Ireland campaign [which has an excellent YouTube channel].
Irish Feminist Network:
Support Choice Ireland, Action on X, the IFPA, whether it’s online or by spreading the word that nothing is legal in Ireland. I think that awareness abroad would put more pressure on Irish politicians, and on Irish people, to realise the situation and to work for change.
Michelle Harte, an Irish cancer sufferer who was forced to travel to the UK to end a pregnancy that was a risk to her health
PoliticiansIt was suggested you might email or write letters making your support for the provision of abortion in Ireland include: The Irish Taoiseach [prime minister] Enda Kenny, Irish Health Ministers James Reilly, Roisin Shortall, Kathleen Lynch, TDs [MPs] Ivana Bacik and Clare Daly, who both have an excellent record on supporting women’s rights. Irish residents should also contact their local TDs.
I wanted to get more background information about the kind of women in Ireland who seek abortions.
Irish Family Planning Association:
There’s a misconception that it’s teenagers that have abortions but the vast majority of Irish women that have abortions in the UK are in the 25- 35 age range. We get about 5000 calls to our helpline a year from women of all ages, and all situations, including from asylum seekers or [women] who are undocumented so they can’t travel to the UK. So that’s another [distressing issue].
We find the women who opt for an abortion just feel that, at this point, they are not in a position to either have another child or to start a family for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s health- it can be a range of issues.
We know that at least four thousand five hundred women travel to the mainland UK for abortions every year, so that’s twelve every day. But the thing is, that’s twelve women who’ve travelled to the UK and gave Irish addresses.
There are no figures for Irish women who went to the UK and gave UK addresses. There are no figures for Irish women who went to Spain or France, and no figures for the women who are Eastern European migrants who went back to their home countries to have abortions there. There are no figures for women who have bought the abortion pill online, or for women who have back street abortions.
Abortion Support Network:
When I was thinking about starting the ASN, I thought, “you know what, if 5000 women are coming over, then there’s another 2000 that aren’t coming over cos they can’t afford it.”
The women we provide grants to range in age from 14- 45. The majority of them already have at least one child. Some of them are in relationships, some of them are not.
There really is no particular type of woman that we hear from. Some are students, some are parents, a lot of them- a lot- are unemployed, or their partners are unemployed.
There’s a huge element of hypocrisy to when [anti-choice organisations] talk about women going for abortions because they say it’s teenagers but all of the service providers in the UK, and people who provide counselling in Ireland will tell you that it’s everyone.
It’s people from all ages and increasingly a lot of women in their thirties. The main reason women in that age group are having abortions is because financially they just do not have [the resources], and they don’t feel that they would be able to parent in an adequate or in a good way because of their own financial situations.
I then asked what differences the provision of abortion within Ireland would make to women.
Irish Family Planning Association:
The European Court of Human Rights has acknowledged the physical, financial and psychological burden on women having to travel. It’s quite significant.
What we know is that criminalizing abortion is not an effective tool to reduce the abortion rate but what it does do is add this additional burden to women.
And for some women it has a bigger impact than on others. I think that politicians underestimate the damage that has been done to Ireland’s international reputation.
We’ve a fairly good reputation on human rights but when it comes to women’s rights - and women’s reproductive rights in particular - it’s pretty appalling that we’re outside the European consensus. Not just outside, we’re so far outside the European consensus and we’re there with the tin pot republics by criminalizing abortion in this way.
Abortion Support Network:
For a lot of women, the trauma [that’s often said to surround abortion] isn’t caused by the fact that they have to have an abortion. It’s caused by the fact that they have to sell their furniture, and lie to people and be treated like criminals in their own country… it’s like they say, “the rich get richer and the poor have children.”
Physically, there are women travelling who have physical conditions and feel they need a termination, or have been advised that they need a termination. The travelling, getting on an aeroplane, if it’s a blood clotting condition they have and the pregnancy is something that’s going to increase the risk, they’re having an abortion to end that.
That kind of physical risk would be gone. Mentally for those women as well, that would be fantastic. And financially, it would take away the thing of either having to book last minute flights or wait and book your flights in a few weeks so you can afford them, and carry this pregnancy that you don’t want to.
It would also take away the immediate physical risk for women who are having abortions by themselves at home in their bathrooms because they’ve ordered a pill online.
It would make such a difference to women that I can’t even begin to comprehend.
A final point, and one made by everyone I’ve interviewed is that pro-choice groups in Ireland get no funding at all. They’re all, like the women they support, in dire need. So your support, whether in terms of sending emails to them or politicians, or making a donation would be very gratefully received.