Calls for clarity on whether abortion an ‘urgent’ medical service

Advocacy group says confusion over travel rights causing upset at distressing time

Women travelling abroad for abortion services are facing increased costs and delays, and are being refused permission to board flights amid confusion over their travel rights during the pandemic, an advocacy group has said.

The Abortion Support Network (ASN), a London-based charity supporting women travelling for abortion services, is calling for "clarity" from the Department of Health as to whether abortion is an "urgent" medical service under the Covid-19 travel regulations.

It said that if abortion is considered an urgent service, clarity is needed as to whether women returning to Ireland need to provide a negative PCR test.

The current regulations state that among those exempt from the requirement to provide a pre-departure, negative PCR test before arriving from the UK are: “Patients travelling to Ireland for urgent medical reasons [where] that reason is certified by registered medical practitioner or person holding an equivalent qualification outside the State.”

A negative test is not needed to travel from Ireland into the UK.

In recent weeks the ASN has supported women refused permission to board flights to Ireland after having abortions and, in one case, a woman who was refused permission to board a flight to the UK because she did not have evidence of recent negative tests.

Although medical abortion on request is legal up to 12 weeks, under the provisions of the 2018 Abortion Regulation Act, thereafter an abortion must be performed in a hospital, and only in exceptional circumstances where continuing the pregnancy would put the woman’s life or health at serious risk or where the baby is likely to die within 28 days of birth due to a foetal abnormality.

Several hundred women a year have travelled to the UK for abortions since 2018, though numbers have dropped dramatically since the pandemic restrictions began in March of last year.

In addition to fewer flights operating and difficulties in accessing hotel accommodation during the pandemic, a lack of clarity on rules about PCR tests for women travelling for abortions is making arranging the journey “almost impossible to navigate”, ASN director Mara Clarke said.

“We have asked for clarity repeatedly, and put in questions to the Department of Health through doctors in Ireland and they repeatedly don’t provide it. We need clarity, both for the women and the airlines.

“It means women lose the money they’ve spent on airline tickets, lose their clinic appointments, need to spend hundreds on Covid tests and, in some cases, are pushed into higher gestations which mean more expensive abortions.”

Asked about the lack of clarity for women leaving Ireland for abortions, a department spokeswoman said: “The regulations set out exemptions from the requirements [for PCR tests] including for people who can provide certification by a medical practitioner that their travel to Ireland is for an unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical reason.”

When it was put to her that this did not answer the question, no reply was provided.

Case study: ‘A stressful and degrading experience’

‘Bernadette’ (not her real name) travelled to London last month. Her unplanned pregnancy came shortly after giving birth to a baby who had spent “a long time” in neo-natal intensive care.

Bernadette had been very ill during that pregnancy and “was not physically or mentally able to cope” with another. She was more than 12 weeks’ pregnant.

“In advance of booking flights, I consulted with ASN and my doctor to confirm I should be exempt from Covid testing… Both were confident my return should not be an issue based on the exemptions,” she said.

“However, on arriving at the check-in desk at Heathrow, I was told I was not exempt despite producing detailed documentation to confirm the procedure and my discharge. I asked to speak to a supervisor who informed me of the same thing after calling immigration to check the possibility of travel due to my circumstances. All of these discussions were conducted in front of other passengers at a busy check-in desk – a stressful and degrading experience.

“I was told that without a PCR test it was not possible to fly and I would have to go into mandatory quarantine on arrival home.”

Bernadette said she was provided with a number for the Irish Embassy and directed to the test centre in Heathrow Airport.

“Being very distressed at this stage, I was then told that the results of any test would not be back for up to 72 hours, meaning extending my stay, spending more money and not being able to return to my two children at home in the care of my partner, who was trying to work full time.”

She said she found a rapid test centre near Heathrow and paid “an exorbitant amount” to get a three-hour turnaround for the result.

“On my return to check-in with a negative PCR result, there was no airline staff to consult, so I went through to departures and waited several hours alone hoping to be able to board and get home,” she added.

“Having to do this in Covid with vague Government restrictions that make it tough to get home and force you to undergo additional stress and financial burdens after such an experience is horrendous.”