January was not as busy as usual for Mara Clarke. Typically, the London-based founder of the Abortion Support Network [ASN] gets a large number of calls from women needing help to travel to Britain to terminate a pregnancy.
This year, with the introduction of general abortion services in Ireland, the phones still ring but much less than usual.
“We have experienced a big slump in calls. Usually January is very busy for us. Firstly, because of all the consensual and non-consensual holiday season sex. Secondly, because it can be hard to get away in the lead-up to the holiday season and flights can be very expensive in December, and also clinics close in the holidays. January tends to be a super busy time for us. This year ... in January we have heard from about 30 new clients. Last year it was over 100,” she said.
Ms Clarke used to describe the ASN as the “plaster” on Ireland’s abortion laws – with 90 volunteers, she provides advice and help to women on how to get terminations, showing them how to get the procedure in the most cost-effective way possible.
Concerns have been raised that doctors could breach the 12-week limit after the three-day wait and the time it takes for the medication to run its course are factored in
When they opened the phone lines in 2009, there were 89 calls. In 2017, they received 1,009 calls, 685 of which were from the Republic of Ireland.
The British Pregnancy and Advisory Service (BPAS), which provides abortions to an estimated one-third of Irish women who travel to Britain for procedures, has also seen a drop in people contacting them.
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs, said the number of women using its services was half of what it was in January of last year. Under the new Irish system, GPs can provide abortions to women up to nine weeks of pregnancy. Hospitals perform terminations at between nine and 12 weeks.
“We hope it goes down further. We anticipate still seeing women after 12 weeks but obviously we can be here for women as long as they need us. But we would expect not to be seeing more than a handful before 12 weeks so we hope that number goes down,” said Ms Murphy.
Since the introduction of the new law in Ireland, concerns have been raised that doctors could breach the 12-week limit after the three-day waiting period is factored in, along with the time it takes for the medication to run its course.
As there are criminal sanctions within the law, this has resulted in anxiety among some doctors. A woman with a fatal foetal abnormality was reportedly declined a termination by the Coombe hospital last month. She subsequently said she would travel to England for the procedure.Irish law as I understand keeps abortion within the criminal law so any doctor who performs an abortion outside of the law can potentially be prosecuted in a way that is different from any other medical procedure
'Irish law keeps abortion within the criminal law so any doctor who performs one outside of the law can potentially be prosecuted ... making doctors err on the side of caution'
Ms Clarke said she was happy that some women were now able to get abortions. But she said there were complicating factors for many including who was providing the services in Ireland; the 12-week limit; and delays in getting GP appointments, which may lead to days of missed work and the need for childcare.
“The fact that many people are still travelling shows that for some people it is less of an inconvenience to get on a plane and fly over and have service in one day,” she said. There have been instances of women with fatal foetal abnormalities who have had to prove that "their foetal abnormality was abnormal enough”.
“Now couples whose pregnancies have something catastrophically wrong with them have to prove that there is something catastrophically wrong enough to qualify for termination under the law,” she said.
Ms Murphy said that putting criminal sanctions into the law had made doctors nervous.
“The Irish law as I understand keeps abortion within the criminal law so any doctor who performs an abortion outside of the law can potentially be prosecuted in a way that is different from any other medical procedure. I think that does have implications about how women are treated. I do think that having retained that in the law makes doctors err on the side of caution. Given that the Republic voted in the way that it did and voted so that women with fatal foetal abnormalities do not have to travel, it is important that they are cared for at home,” she said.
Other concerns surround anti-abortion activists ringing up helplines to find out details of GPs providing abortion services, which has resulted in protests in Galway, Kilkenny and Louth.
Cara Sanquest of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign said similar tactics had been used by activists opposed to abortion in the UK, in some instances giving out rosary beads in the shape of foetuses to women entering clinics and calling them “Mum”. Ms Sanquest said legislation needed to be hastened to bring in “buffer zones” in Ireland to stop patients being harassed.
Travellers, people who are living in Ireland illegally and women who are in abusive relationships traditionally only report their pregnancy later on
The London-Irish Abortion Rights campaign gathered considerable energy in the run-up to the vote last year, encouraging Irish people with a vote to return home for the referendum.
The focus of the campaign has now shifted to Northern Ireland in an attempt to change the law there and continue the momentum from the vote in the Republic. The 1967 Abortion Act, which allowed for abortion in Great Britain, did not extend to Northern Ireland. Abortion remains illegal there unless a woman’s life is at risk or there is a risk to her mental or physical health that is long term or permanent.
Ms Clarke said ASN would be reaching out to groups of people who still need to travel and traditionally only report their pregnancy later on: Travellers, people who are living in Ireland illegally, and women who are in abusive relationships, among others. It had become increasingly difficult to get people who are not from the EU into England for procedures, she said, so they had been working with a group in the Netherlands to get procedures done there.
“There will always be people who need abortion after 12 weeks because of the sheer number of women who get periods when they are pregnant [and] the sheer number of women who are on long-term contraceptives where you don’t get periods. The Abortion Support Network is going to be open and helping people. Even if we help only five people, we are happy.”