Abortion Support Network: ‘In a perfect world, our phone would never ring’
London-based volunteer agency gave €84,000 in aid to help pay for terminations last year
Mara Clarke describes herself and the London-based Abortion Support Network she founded as the ‘plaster’ on Ireland’s abortion laws.
There are many stories etched in Mara Clarke’s memory. One is the pregnant 12-year-old who she was contacted about. In another week, there were two separate cases of 15-year-olds who were pregnant after being raped.
“There was a homeless woman who had been trafficked to Ireland, got out of the life, married a man, he abused her; she ended up homeless. She is bouncing from shelter to shelter [and] has a lot of mental health issues, a lot of persecution issues.”
Clarke recalls “the difficulty of getting her to accept that we were trying to help her [and] weren’t out to get her like everybody else was out to get her”.
Clarke describes herself and the London-based Abortion Support Network (ASN) she founded as the “plaster” on Ireland’s abortion laws. With 90 volunteers, she provides advice and help to women in Ireland on how to travel to the UK to get terminations.
Support and advice
When they opened the phone lines in 2009, there were 89 calls. Last year they received 1,009 calls, 685 of which were from the Republic of Ireland.
In 2017, the ASN gave £74,000 (€84,000) in “grants” – aid to women to help pay for all of the expenses involved in getting a termination.
“We are not hunting for clients. In a perfect world for us, our phone would never ring.”
The women who travel are sometimes alone and trapped in abusive relationships, others come with their parents or partners
Of those who call, about one in four gets financial help. The rest get advice on how to carry out the trip in the most cost-efficient way possible.
The women who travel are sometimes alone and trapped in abusive relationships, others come with their parents or partners, says Clarke. One who contacted her believed she had been sterilised but became pregnant. One couple was refused a €200 overdraft by their bank. A woman in direct provision went door to door to raise €140 for her daughter’s abortion.
The ASN, a registered charity, continued the work done by the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG), which supported women from 1980 onwards, drawing ire from some of the Irish community in Britain. A third generation Russian American Jew who grew up in Illinois, Clarke arrived in London in 2005 and started working for Abortion Rights UK where she learned of the large number of Irish women travelling to the UK for abortions.
More than 3,200 terminations were performed on women resident in the Republic of Ireland in 2016, according to the UK’s Department of Health, more than two-thirds of all of the abortions carried out on women from outside of England and Wales. These figures do not tell the full story, says Clarke, as the number of women who get the early medical abortion pill online or who give a false address at the clinic adds greatly to the total.
“Really, it is about fairness. I can’t think of anything which would change the trajectory of your life more than having a child, full stop, and an unwanted child, exclamation mark,” she remarks.
“Now that I am a parent, you don’t give this job to someone who does not want it. This idea that it does not happen – clearly it happens – and that is one of the things that I have seen over the course of the referendum campaign, that people can no longer pretend that abortion does not happen.
“There are some women who the ASN may not be able to help, such as those who are in abusive relationships who cannot get away for a day or asylum seekers who need travel documents and entry and exit visas.
“Money can’t find you a babysitter who will come to your house at five in the morning and stay until 10pm,” she says.
Donations, which make up the vast majority of grants, come mostly from private donors, with spikes when the issue hits the public consciousness in Ireland, such as the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway.
Amid the sorrowful cases that she “carries” every day, Clarke says she finds happiness in her job. “I focus on the joy. The fact that hundreds of people give us money to help us pay for abortions. The fact that 90 people volunteer their time and we don’t pay them. The fact that when we need a new logo, 20 people will say they will design it .”
Many of the people who come to her for help were themselves opposed to abortion at one stage, says Clarke, until something changed such as a young relative getting pregnant.
On the referendum, she is hopeful for a Yes but prepared for defeat. But even in the event of a Yes vote, it will not mark the end of Irish women travelling to the UK for terminations nor for the need for a fund to help them with their expenses, she says.
Unless abortions are free, you are still going to need an abortion fund
Under Government plans, terminations will be accessible in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. However, a large proportion of women who travel to the UK are past this timeframe, says Clarke. She questions how migrants, refugees, Travellers and students will afford abortions. The ASN will be there to fill in the cracks, she says.
“Unless abortions are free, you are still going to need an abortion fund,” she says. “Unless there is provision across Ireland, you are still going to have the issue in Letterkenny where someone has different access to someone in Dublin, especially if we are talking about going to your GP. You are not going to want to go to the GP who your abusive partner drinks beers with.”