Figures released by the UK Department of Health in May show women from the island of Ireland accounted for 82.6% of abortions provided to non-British residents last year.
That’s roughly nine women having to travel every single day and these annual headlines are an understatement. Not every woman arriving at a British clinic will give an Irish address while in other instances, women may have the option to travel somewhere else like the Netherlands. Even in the collection of statistics there are layers of invisibility and silence but nine women forced to leave their own home each day is nine too many and Britain remains the primary destination.
The task involved in arranging this journey has been covered in some detail here.
Have you been to the doctor? How far along are you? Do you know the further along you are, the more expensive an abortion is? Can you get a loan from a Credit Union? Or will you go to a money lender? Do you have anything you can sell to raise the money? Can you lie to your parents or friends to borrow money? Can you max your credit card? Do you even have a credit card? Are there any bills that you can get away with not paying this month? Have you gone through all your old coats and looked down the back of the sofa? How long will it take for you to get €1,000 together? Can you get an extra €20 off the Community Welfare Officer? Can you not buy coal for the next few weeks? Are you on the dole? Can you use your savings? Can you defer your year at college and save the money for your Master’s Degree again? Is it Christmas time? Can you return any gifts for a refund or sell them for cash?
Do you have travel documents? A passport is €80 and Ryanair will only let you travel with a passport. Can you get a Driver’s Licence? You’ve lost it? Aer Lingus will let you travel on a work ID. Your work ID doesn’t have a photo on it? You’ll need a passport then.
Are you an Asylum Seeker? Ok, then you need to get travel documents that will allow you to re-enter the state. Who is your solicitor? Is he or she pro choice? How much does he or she charge to help you with this?
In the republic, while already illegal, abortion has also been constitutionally prohibited since 1983. The North is still governed under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act as the 1967 Abortion Act has not yet crossed the Irish Sea.
Women living the republic were eventually given explicit right to travel for a termination in 1992 and Irish citizens along with women from the north can avail of the Common Travel Area to enter Britain with minimal restrictions. This pre-EU agreement is likely to remain in the event of Brexit but given the prevailing climate and addition of an EU border scenario, movement between Ireland and Britain will be effected in other ways.
For this group, the worst outcome will hopefully be limited to uncertainty in the weeks and months following the referendum but we do not expect the ground to shift that dramatically.
It is worth pointing out in this context another example of the hypocrisy which reliably follows the abortion question. The referendum campaign and decades leading to it have regularly focused on the alleged pressure migration places on the welfare state at the expense of ‘taxpayers’. British services for the British and all that. In the midst of all this chest beating sensationalism, women from Northern Ireland alone, who are no less entitled than those in Kent or Cardiff, are denied access to treatment on the NHS anywhere in Britain.
Ireland has also been a destination of increasing migration since the 1990s and these people, chief among them the British (!), accounted for over half a million residents at the last census in 2011. The split is roughly 50/50 meaning there are at least 250,000 women who may potentially seek an abortion at some time in their lives. While EU citizens make up the majority of this number, Britain outside the EU is unlikely to look as favourably on say, Lithuanians as they might the Dutch. How the issue of free movement for EU citizens is dealt with after the referendum is unknown but the cry that “we have lost control of borders” being a dominant campaigning issue is ominous. Tighter application process or controls can only be worse for women often in desperate situations of time and money.
The sizeable number of non-EU Irish residents from places like Nigeria and the Philippines already face restrictions and routine torment at airports. On top of crisis pregnancy, they, along with asylum seekers and the undocumented, will potentially face yet another layer of racist bureaucracy and policing in both Britain and at home. Take all we have learned about Irish women’s experience and add having to account for your movements or reasons for travel in the face of Irish immigration officialdom.
None of this is meant to be alarmist and rests firmly in the realm of speculation. In the event of Britain rescinding EU membership the target of restrictions will tilt toward permanent visas and immigration rather than temporary visits in the short term however both are very quickly linked when one approaches the passport desk. Increasing hostility at the boarder is certain and this is important to highlight in the reality of Irish abortion. As entry to Britain becomes more draconian, women who for reasons of xenophobia are seen as undesirable or suspect will be under further pressure to prove they are only staying for a day or so. Their personal, entirely legitimate reasons for travel are hardly suited for airport interrogations.
Regardless of outcome, this referendum coupled with refugee paranoia will only add increased burden so long as abortion access remains restricted on the island of Ireland.
The prospect Britain leaving the European Union is viewed as an unmitigated crisis in eyes of the Irish government but while prime minister Enda Kenny travels around Britain campaigning at the behest of business, finance and farmers, it is safe to assume the implications for Irish women have never crossed his mind.
In truth, the idea that Irish women may soon be forced to leave the European Union to access healthcare doesn’t bear thinking about.
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