Annually for the past nine years, the UK Department of Health have issued statistics showing a decline in the numbers of women giving Irish addresses when accessing abortion services in Britain . The 2010 figures, released earlier this week, revealed that 4,402 women gave Irish addresses to British clinics when they accessed abortion services – 12 women for every day that year. Doctor Stephanie O’Keeffe, the Acting Director of Ireland’s Crisis Pregnancy Program, praised the figures, saying that "The numbers are actually very low by international standards. We have been bucking the trend compared to other countries, where abortion numbers and rates have been increasing." In fact, the 2010 figure represents a drop of just 20 on the previous year – a decline of 0.5%. This is hardly remarkable given the scale of the numbers and considering the level of emigration out of Ireland since the onset of the recession; it’s very possible that were it not for emigration the figure could be much higher. Actually, were it not for the drastic drop in income in Ireland, the figures may have been higher again. Travelling outside of the country to get an abortion is not something that can be done on the cheap.
The issuing of the figures heralds the annual gloating from the anti-choice movement who believe that it shows a reduction in the number of Irish women having abortions. Of course, it demonstrates nothing of the sort. The figures are in no way an adequate reflection of the actual number of women having abortions. Those collected by the UK Department of Health do not include the numbers of Irish women who give false British addresses in order to protect their anonymity, or those who travel further afield to access abortion services. Neither do they include the number of women who procure the abortion pill by purchasing it over the internet (in 2010, a Choice Ireland Freedom of Information request revealed that Irish Customs authorities had seized 1,216 packs of abortion pills the previous year which had been ordered online), or from shops where, if you know the right people, you can buy it easily over the counter. Furthermore, the figures do not indicate the number of women who, in the absence of any other choice, opt for backstreet abortions. The idea that the number of women travelling to Britain for abortions is the sum total of Irish women actually having abortions would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The reality of the situation for women in Ireland is much more disturbing.
Much as the Government would like to wish the abortion problem away, it isn’t happening. The ban on abortion in Ireland massively increases the emotional, psychological and financial burdens placed on women already in crisis. It allows women who can afford to travel to access safe abortion services in an environment where any immediate aftercare they might need is available to them. Vulnerable women, young women, migrant women and those who simply cannot raise the money to travel in time are left behind and must either undergo DIY abortions or carry unwanted pregnancies to full term.
Last year, three very brave women brought Ireland to the European Court of Human Rights because they were forced to travel outside of their home state to seek the services they needed (ABC v Ireland). One of these women had undergone chemotherapy as part of her treatment for cancer. The cancer went into remission and she subsequently underwent further cancer tests, unaware that she was pregnant at the time. When she discovered her pregnancy, she sought information about the impact of the tests on the foetus and the risk to her own life and health. Because she received little information from her doctors, she did the research alone and opted to go to Britain for a termination which she then suffered complications from. The Court ruled that the State’s failure to set out clear procedures by which she could determine whether she was entitled to a legal abortion in Ireland violated her right to respect for her private life under the European Convention on Human Rights. It was a narrow ruling, but it was progress for the pro-choice cause; the court held that the State must legislate for abortion where it is already legal in Ireland, that is, under the terms of the X judgment.
The Government now have until June 16th to submit an action plan to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe setting out the measures Ireland will take to implement the judgment. Before the general election was held in February, the now Taoiseach Enda Kenny stated that the issue should be dealt with by an all-party Oireachtas committee, citing it as a “very divisive issue in Ireland in the past” and saying that a re-run of the abortion debate was “not what the country needs right now.” He neglected to refer to the needs of women who are forced to leave the state for legitimate medical procedures, or the needs of women who are left with forced pregnancies. However, Mr. Kenny was quite adamant at the time that there was to be no further referendum on the issue. A committee to “look at” the issue was the only way to go. The Government has now been in situ for over 3 months, and unsurprisingly no such committee has been convened.
When the new Fine Gael/Labour coalition Government entered office, the incoming Minister for Health, Dr. James Reilly, was given some briefing materials for his new post, which contained a very telling paragraph regarding one unit within his Health Department. It said:
“….Abortion is one of two issues pertaining to the remit of the Social Inclusion Unit to appear on the Risk Register (the Department’s Risk Management Policy), along with Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR). The Unit is hoping to be able to prepare options for an Action Plan in relation to the ABC v Ireland ruling as well as policy proposals for AHR. However, in light of current resources, a decision will then have to be made as to which of these issues will be prioritised for the development of regulations/legislation….”
There are currently no laws or regulation on Assisted Human Reproduction in Ireland, and like abortion, it exists in a very murky and grey legal area. One consequence is that families created through surrogacy have no clear entitlement to the rights conferred on families in Irish law. What is very clear is that according to the Department, there isn’t enough money in the pot to deal with both issues. It is one or the other. For this conservative Government who do not want to deal with abortion on any level, it is a convenient excuse.
One can only surmise that the action plan which they are legally obliged to submit by June 16th will be more of a plan to convene a cross-party group to again look at the issue, rather than one with concrete policy proposals. Indeed, Mr. Kenny’s idea of this committee’s role is to “determine what the facts are, the scale of the problem and the nature of it and see if we can arrive at a consensus on how to deal with it.” It is amazing that a person can end up as the head of a Government without realising that abortion is one of those issues you’re probably not going to achieve consensus on.
The fact is that the European Court of Human Rights has said the State must legislate for abortion in certain (albeit incredibly narrow) circumstances, and no amount of navel-gazing in parliamentary committee rooms is going to change that ruling. Under the current regime, women have no clarity as to when they may have a termination, and medical practitioners have no clarity as to when they can perform one. Convening a committee to discuss that particular point ad nauseum, and then everybody agreeing how terrible that is but not actually doing anything about it, is a criminal abdication of a Government’s responsibility to ensure women’s right to health care procedures.
It is a political fudge, and while the hypocritical pontificating continues, at least 12 women will still continue to travel each day to Britain to access safe and legal abortion services, following in the footsteps of the 147,881 Irish women since 1980 who have done so before them. Not to mention the ones who will continue to buy RU486 online, and seek services of backstreet abortionists. Ireland may have banned abortion, but it is clearly not stopping women from making that choice. It hasn’t even come close to it.