The latest case of a woman denied an abortion and forced to have a caesarean shows the situation for vulnerable women is still dire.
A young woman, variously described as “suicidal”, an “immigrant”, and a “rape victim”, tried to demand an abortion under Ireland’s widely promoted but ultimately useless abortion legislation. What she got was a state-mandated caesarean section at 25 weeks and a premature infant placed into the care of the state.
People often ask why I set up Abortion Support Network, an almost entirely volunteer-run charity that helps women living in Ireland and Northern Ireland have access to abortions. The story that’s been splashed over the news in the past few days is a pretty good reason. As are many of the 345 calls or emails we’ve received this year asking for our help.
“I was raped last month but never did anything about it because I blamed myself,” says one. “I have now discovered I’m pregnant. I can’t possibly bring a child into this world at this time in my life and I would rather die than go through with this pregnancy. I need to have an abortion but I haven’t got a lot of money to spare. That’s another reason I can’t have this child, as I’d have no means to support it.”
“My teenage daughter is pregnant and the stress of it has made her suicidal,” says another. “But I’m afraid putting her through the process of obtaining an abortion legally will put too much strain on her mental state. Can you help us?”
“I’m freaking out about how far gone I am. I can’t have a baby for many different reasons but I have no money and I’m so afraid because the price of an abortion almost triples the longer gone you are.”
Let’s be clear. ASN does not hear from the “average” woman needing an abortion. Most women who need abortions have things like jobs, credit cards, bank accounts, family they can reach out to for help. ASN only hears from the women who are so desperate to raise the funds they need that they are willing to contact strangers and involve them in their abortion decision. Asked to talk about the worst case I’d ever heard, I’m at a loss: is it the refugee who was raped and tortured by prison guards before escaping to Ireland only to find herself pregnant but unable to obtain a visa to travel for an abortion, or the 17-year-old girl who was considering taking her own life after becoming pregnant as a result of a violent rape? The woman overcoming a recent bereavement and suffering from severe depression whose prayers were literally answered when she had a miscarriage rather than needing to travel to England, or the mother-of-four trying to figure out how to crash her car badly enough to induce miscarriage but not badly enough to kill or permanently injure herself?
The law, as it stands, fails not only the woman in the C-section case, but all women in Ireland. When you make abortion against the law, or restrict it in any way, women only have options if they have a passport, a credit card, someone to watch their kids, and the £400 to £2,000 it costs to travel and pay privately for an abortion.
“My finances are very stretched with caring for my family. I live in rural Ireland and the travel alone is more than I can afford,” says one caller.
Since we opened in 2009, ASN has heard from 1,500 women, ranging in age from 51 down to 13, who were in or escaping abusive relationships, had serious mental or physical health issues, were carrying wanted pregnancies with fatal foetal anomalies, women and families with children unable to afford more. On 12 June, the UK Department of Health published its Abortion Statistics report for 2013. These numbers showed a reduction in women from Ireland and Northern Ireland travelling to England to access a safe and legal abortion – 4,481 down from 4,887 – the lowest reported number since 1969. These numbers do not include the women who come to England and give the address of a local friend or family member, the women who travel to other countries to access abortions, or the hundreds – if not thousands – of women who obtain early medical abortion pills online from Women on Web. They also do not capture those who cannot travel for reasons of cost, childcare or anything else.
In 2013, ASN was contacted by 446 women and couples seeking support in order to access a safe and legal abortion, up from 363 in 2012 and 253 in 2011. The total so far this year does not include any emails and calls that have come in while the volunteer with the phone this week is at work.
I wish we at ASN could express shock and outrage at this case that has been in the news. Unfortunately, we know that in five minutes or a day or a week we will hear from another woman in dire circumstances, at her wits’ end, trying to salvage her life from the disaster it becomes when faced by an unplanned pregnancy in a country that criminalises abortion.
Image courtesy of theguardian.com