The women Arlene Foster and Theresa May don’t want you to talk about

Women march to Irish Embassy in London (Credit Alastair Moore)

Women march to Irish Embassy in London (Credit Alastair Moore)

Theresa May and Arlene Foster have understandably dominated the headlines in recent days. But for the purpose of this blog, we’re going to park them to the side for a minute and talk about some other women – 3,989 of them, to be precise.

Yesterday, the Department of Health released its national abortion statistics for England and Wales. They confirmed what many of us already knew, that thousands of women from Northern Ireland and the Republic travelled across the Irish sea to access abortion in Britain last year.

The statistics offer a picture of the type of people who were forced to make this journey, because of draconian abortion laws across the island of Ireland. 3,265 were from the Republic. 724 were from Northern Ireland. Around 47% were in their 20s. Nearly half were married or in a civil partnership. And 87% were less than 12 weeks pregnant.  

The figures from 2016 are down on the previous year, when 5,160 women had to board boats and planes to end their pregnancies. However, the figures are not entirely representative - and do not mean that less women accessed terminations. Abortion pills have become more readily available in recent times and many women will have chosen this option. Of course, by doing so, they’ve risked 14 years in prison in the Republic of Ireland and life in the North.

“The statistics also do not include the women who give the address of a local friend or family member, or who travel to other countries to access abortions,” said Mara Clarke, Director of the Abortion Support Network (ASN) – a London-based charity which helps Irish women access abortion.  

“These numbers do not capture the women who cannot travel – women who need, but cannot obtain, passports or visas; women who cannot escape from violent partners; and women who do not have the £400 to £2,000 it costs to travel to England and pay privately for an abortion.”

The reality is that the exact number of women, who end their pregnancies across Ireland, will never be known. But we can give you details of some of the hardships they face.

Mara Clarke set up the Abortion Support Network in 2009

Mara Clarke set up the Abortion Support Network in 2009

Mara and her team hear from women, who need abortions, on a daily basis and offer them the financial, practical and emotional support that their governments fail to provide.  

Last year it heard from 801 women – 524 from the Republic of Ireland and 166 from Northern Ireland.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

  • “Our 15-year-old is having an abortion and before we found your page we planned to borrow money from a loan shark to help her.”
  • “I am pretty sure my ex-partner will kill me if he knows I am pregnant.”
  • “I am about 21 weeks pregnant and unfortunately my baby has been diagnosed with a major foetal abnormality. This is a wanted pregnancy and I’m devastated by the diagnosis and also really frustrated that my doctors can’t or won’t tell me anything about ending this.”
  • “I have a pregnant teenage daughter who doesn’t want to keep the pregnancy. We tried to get the pills online but they were stopped by customs.”
  • “I am pregnant from a rape and I cannot go through with this pregnancy. I have never left this country and it scares me and finding the money feels impossible. I would be so grateful if anyone cared enough to get in touch with me.”
  • “I contemplated suicide to get away from this, as I really just couldn't go on with my life if I have to remain pregnant.”
  • “You are the only people we’ve reached out to for help who have called us back.”

The total number of people contacting the ASN for help has increased by 112% since the charity opened in 2009.

Mara said: “These are the women who are prevented by stigma from reaching out to families for help, women unable to scrape together the money to travel, women forced to share their personal business with a group of strangers in England and ask for money.

“We’ve heard time and time again from women forced by the despair induced by a combination of poverty and draconian abortion laws who have taken matters into their own hands – by ingesting chemicals, by overdosing on medications, by drinking excessively, by literally throwing themselves down stairs to try and induce miscarriage.

“We know that making abortion against the law doesn’t stop abortion. It just means that those with money have options and those without do not.”

Although Mara’s work is invaluable – it should not be necessary. Women should not need to beg for help to access basic healthcare. They shouldn’t have to leave their families, friends and children behind and travel a clinic on their own. And they certainly should not be reduced to statistics.

Yet, our political leaders refuse to act. As Theresa May engages in government negotiations with DUP leader Arlene Foster, it’s unlikely the improvement of reproductive rights will be high on the agenda. Foster’s party are the drivers behind Northern Ireland’s excessively punitive abortion laws – and have nurtured a culture that allows the prosecution of women for accessing abortion pills. But instead of holding them to account, a desperate Theresa May is offering them even more power.

Across the border, Ireland’s new leader Leo Varadkar, is equally ineffectual. He once likened travelling abroad for an abortion – to a stag party, saying: “People travel overseas to do things that aren’t legal in Ireland all the time. You know, are we going to stop people going to Las Vegas? Are we going to stop people going to Amsterdam?"

From the outside, this trio of leaders should fill us with hope - two women and a gay man (who campaigned diligently for equal marriage) rising to the top tier of politics. Instead, they are likely to preside over another year of misery for women across Ireland.

We must therefore look elsewhere for inspiration – to Mara and her incredible team at the Abortion Support Network - and to each other. The women of Ireland need us.  

You can donate to the Abortion Support Network here.

You can get involved with the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign here.  


Hannah Little