Written evidence submitted by practical support and financial assistance charity, Abortion Support Network
Abortion Support Network (ASN) is a charity that provides financial assistance, accommodation and confidential, non-judgemental information to women forced to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland and pay privately for abortions in England. The cost of this ranges from £400 to £2000 depending on circumstance and stage of pregnancy.
ASN was founded with the understanding that making abortion against the law doesn’t stop abortion but only stops safe abortion. Or as we say as often as we can to anyone who will listen, making abortion against the law means that when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, women with money have options and women without money have babies, or do dangerous and desperate things.
ASN is not a campaigning or lobbying organisation. While other organisations campaign for much needed law reform, our volunteers work hard to provide immediate, practical support to women who are unable to access safe and legal abortion in their own countries. We believe that the laws in these countries should change, so that women don’t have to seek help from our organisation. In the meantime, we will do as much as we can to help as many women as possible.
To find out more about ASN and our work, please visit: www.asn.org.uk.
Introduction and summary
Abortion Support Network welcomes the launch of the Women and Equalities Select Committee enquiry into the Government’s plans for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5). As the one organisation helping women and pregnant people without access to NHS abortions, our submission will focus on the aim to ‘ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights’, with particular reference to Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion legislation.
Access to abortion in Northern Ireland is covered by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, as the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply. This means that abortion is only available in exceptional circumstances (if the mental or physical health of the woman is at serious or grave risk of permanent or long term harm). Virtually no abortions are carried out on the NHS in Northern Ireland. This leaves women needing abortions with three options: to continue an unwanted pregnancy, to face imprisonment by accessing safe but illegal early medical abortion pills from the internet, or to raise the £400 to £2000 it costs to travel to England and pay privately for an abortion. According to the Department of Health, 833 women gave Noethern Irish addresses at UK clinics, but this number does not count the women who stayed with a friend or family member, who gave the address of a BandB or hotel, or who gave a false address. It also doesn’t count the hundreds if not thousands of women accessing safe but illegal early medical abortion pills via www.womenhelp.org and www.womenonweb.org.
We are aware that campaigning and other organisations will be sending in submissions but did want to give you our perspective. We are not academics or campaigners but we are experts on the real human cost of making abortion against the law. Most women in Northern Ireland when faced with an unwanted or non-viable pregnancy, will have a support network, a job, a credit card, travel documents. These are not the people Abortion Support Network hears from. We are contacted by people who are forced by a combination of draconian abortion laws and poverty to call a group of strangers in England, involve them in what should be their personal and private abortion decision, and ask for money.
The human cost of Northern Ireland’s Abortion policy
Abortion Support Network started in 2009 because we believe that “I can’t afford an abortion” shouldn’t be the only reason someone has a child. We believe individual women (or people, as we know a handful of our clients have been trans men) are best placed to decide whether they are ready and able to parent now or ever. We know for a fact that making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it being carried out; it only stops safe abortion. It means that when faced with an unwanted or non-viable pregnancy, those with the £400-£2000 it costs to travel to England have options, and those who do not have babies. Or, in our experience, they may risk prison by taking safe but illegal early medical abortion pills or take dangerous actions in an attempt to self-terminate.
Following are things ASN clients have done before finding out about our organisation and the help available:
- Ingested floor cleaner and bleach
- Taken multiple packets of birth control pills with excessive amounts of alcohol
- Tried to figure out how to crash a car to cause a miscarriage but not permanent injury or death
- Taken heroin for the first time in the hopes that as a non-drug user the shock would cause a miscarriage
- Googled “how to self abort”
- Gone to disreputable money lenders to ask for loans
- Skipped paying rent
- Sold the family car
- Rationed food for the family
- Overdosed on over the counter medication
And the list goes on. Put simply, this is a terrible, untenable position. It is a complete outrage that women who live in part of the United Kingdom do not have access to the same NHS that women in the rest of the UK do. It is also very important to note that there are women in Northern Ireland who, even with financial assistance, are unable to access abortions in England or elsewhere abroad. These women are trapped by the following scenarios:
- The majority of women who have abortions already have children. In countries where abortion is illegal, stigma often means that women are afraid to tell anyone that they are pregnant. We can help with the cost of childcare, but we don’t have a network of childcare providers who can arrive at someone’s home at 5am and stay until midnight, which is how much time it takes to travel to England for a safe abortion and return home. In many cases, for this reason and due to secrecy and shame, a mother living in Ireland is forced to have another baby.
- Many of our clients are in or escaping relationships with abusive partners. Many abusive men will not use birth control, will sabotage birth control, and will use pregnancy to control their partners, as it’s hard to leave your abuser when you are pregnant and looking after small children. We can give these women the funding to travel, but cannot whisk away their partners for a day or more so that they can leave the house safely. In these cases, women whose partners are violent and controlling are forced to have a baby.
- Recently, we’ve become aware of a new type of situation a woman seeking abortion may find herself in. Most women travelling from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man are able to have abortions at UK clinics.BPAS, Marie Stopes, and NUPAS all have reduced prices for clients travelling from overseas. But some women have health issues that mean that their abortions must take place in a hospital. Due to a reduction in the provision of services, there is only one NHS hospital in England that will provide that care, and it will only provide that care up to 12 weeks and 5 days into a pregnancy. A few months back, we heard from a woman from Northern Ireland who didn’t realise she was pregnant until her second trimester, as she believed she had been sterilised after her youngest child was born. Due to a respiratory disorder, she was unable to access an abortion in a UK clinic. We called everywhere, we begged, we pleaded; no one could help. She was therefore forced to have a baby.
This is the true cost of criminalising abortion. Many women will be able to get around the law. These women have friends and family who are supportive, or jobs that mean they can fund themselves. Others will risk imprisonment and take safe but illegal early medical abortion pills. Some will be pointed towards the Abortion Support Network, and we can help remove some of the obstacles. But the true costs of criminalisation are the women who miss these opportunities. The women without internet access. The women in abusive relationships. The women who don’t know ASN exists. The women with physical health issues. These are the women who haunt us and we very much hope this committee decides to call on the Northern Ireland Office to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to extend free, safe, legal abortions to those resident in Northern Ireland.