An international abortion underground

The Irish women in England who helped shepherd their sisters

By Lynn Harris
Published May 21, 2009 11:18AM (EDT)

We know all too well that women travel to neighboring states for abortions made unavailable -- due to excess of laws or shortage of clinics -- in their own. Some of us, or our mothers, might know someone (or "know someone") who, pre-Roe, actually had to leave the country, heading to Mexico, Sweden, Japan or Puerto Rico for a "vacation" that wasn't.

Today, women in Ireland -- at least 5,000 a year -- travel to Britain, in secret, for abortion care. Abortion is illegal throughout Ireland, as you might recall from the tragic -- though finally resolved -- case of "Miss D."

 So illegal, in fact, that the law in the North goes where here it dares not, criminalizing the procedure not just for doctors, but for women too -- carrying the penalty of life in prison. The loophole: It is legal to travel, usually to England, if the pregnancy is found to threaten a woman’s mental or physical health. The reality: Obviously, most women don't stop to check with the court before they call RyanAir.

And from 1980-2000, a network of London-based Irish women -- an international version of the Haven Coalition in New York City -- volunteered to provide transportation, raise funds and open their homes to abortion seekers forced to cross the sea, often poor, frightened and alone. A new book, "Ireland's Hidden Diaspora: The 'Abortion Trail' and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000" -- recently featured as "book of the day" in the Irish Times -- tells their story. By way of context, the book also describes Irish immigration to England during this time, the formation of Irish feminism in Britain, and the history of Irish attitudes toward sex, contraception and women in general.

"I wrote this book to help break the silence surrounding the issue of abortion in Ireland, to challenge the taboo that permeates the subject of Irish abortion, and to show that criminalizing abortion does not decrease the number of women who need terminations but only adds to their predicament," said author, longtime activist and former underground member Ann Rossiter. "The book is also a tribute to the men and women who have provided material and emotional support for these women, and who have relentlessly campaigned for the right of women to reproductive choice at home in Ireland."

Rossiter, who is based in London, also answered a few questions for Broadsheet:

Explain the pertinent laws: What is legal where, what does the National Health Service provide for in terms of abortion, and why is Northern Ireland an exception? What about the Republic?

 The law on abortion in Ireland, in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, is based on the same piece of Victorian legislation, namely the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This act criminalizes abortion and lays down life imprisonment as punishment. This is the bottom line.

However, in Northern Ireland the act was updated somewhat in 1937 allowing for legal abortion if continuing pregnancy would leave the woman "a mental or physical wreck."  As a result, a small number of abortion [requests] have been considered and granted by the Northern Ireland High Court. It is acknowledged that between 70 and 100 abortions are legally carried out each year in Northern Irish hospitals. The law is notoriously unclear despite guidelines having been issued by the Department of Health in March 2009. Doctors are afraid to carry out abortions for "social" [as opposed to "health"] reasons for fear of prosecution.

The net result is that according to official statistics, about 1,500 Northern Irish women (the total population is over 1.5 million) cross "the water" each year for abortions in English clinics, with overall costs being up to £1,500. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many more women travel, giving fictitious names and English addresses, not to mention the women who travel to the Netherlands. Unlike other types of medical procedures, abortion is not available free in English facilities to Northern Irish women under the National Health Service (as it is to women from the rest of the UK), although the territory has remained part of the United Kingdom since the island was partitioned in 1922. A combination of fundamentalist Protestantism and conservative Catholicism has fought to stave off the British 1967 Abortion Act being extended to Northern Ireland.

The 1861 Act was never modified in the Republic of Ireland due to the dominance of Catholicism in the independent state. In fact, in 1983 the law became even more restrictive when the Republic's constitution was amended to make the right to life of "the unborn" equal to that of the mother. A pregnancy may be terminated legally only in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. There is no right to abortion in any other circumstances, even where the woman has been raped.

According to official statistics up to 5,000 women (the total population of the Republic is 4.2 million) travel each year to abortion clinics in England. Like Northern Irish women, their costs -- the procedure, travel, and sometimes accommodation -- are up to £1,500 [approx. $2300]. Again, like their counterparts in the North, the number of abortion seekers may be much higher than the official figures allow, since many are known to give fictitious British addresses or travel to other countries.

To what degree is this a class issue? Do women with money in Ireland just "take a vacation" to England? 

All classes of Irish women travel to England as abortion seekers. How they get the money together, often in a very short period of time, can be difficult in all cases. For instance, a well-heeled teenager may find it difficult to get hold of £1,500 in a hurry without arousing suspicion. Inevitably, low-income or unemployed women, especially lone parents, are hardest hit. Even before the credit crunch, they found it hard to raise money through the usual channels, like banks or building societies, and so have had to resort to money lenders who operate in "the projects" across Ireland and charge high rates of interest. 

How did the underground come to be? What services did it provide? Why did it come to an end?

 An underground network of women helping abortion seekers leave Ireland has probably gone on informally for centuries. We know only bits and pieces of anecdotal evidence, given the secrecy surrounding the abortion issue. However, the network became formalized in the early 1980s with the formation in London of the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group (IWASG). The group comprised of London-based Irish feminists, myself included, who provided information on abortion facilities in England (important from the late 1980s to mid-1990s when abortion information was outlawed in the Republic), did fundraising to help abortion seekers in financial difficulties, collected women from the airport or railway stations, accompanied them to the clinics, and provided accommodation along with a sympathetic ear. This service operated over a 20-year period until the arrival of the Internet, when women could access the information and make clinic appointments themselves online. Also important was the arrival of the mobile phone and cheap, frequent flights between Ireland and England, as well as the removal in 2001 of the National Health Service requirement of overnight stay in the clinic. Now women can come and go on the same day, flight time being only an hour and a bit. Things are likely to change again, however, given the more widespread use of medical abortions. Because of the demise of IWASG there is currently no funding available to abortion seekers from Ireland on this side of the water.

Describe some of the actual circumstances of these women's secret journeys to England and back. 

These women encountered all sorts of unlikely, poignant, weird and sometimes dangerous situations. In the oral history I've compiled in the book, IWASG members have recounted some really sticky moments, like women being held at Heathrow airport under the Prevention of Terrorism Act during "the Troubles." Try telling the security services you are on your way to an abortion clinic when they are convinced you are an IRA bomber on your way to blow up London.

More commonplace were situations when abortion seekers and IWASG women couldn't find each other in the crowds at the airport. It became the norm for IWASG women to wear "fancy dress," especially long red skirts (even when the long skirt had long gone out of fashion). Also, not unusual were situations where abortion seekers ran into friends and relatives at the airport, or even on the flight.

More enduring than any of these incidences are the secrecy and shame that these Irish women bear. As one said to me, "Bearing a burden of shame for my country is the heaviest load I carry."

What is the current legal and cultural climate around this issue -- is there hope for change? 

Undoubtedly there is a change of mood on the abortion issue, especially among the young, in both parts of Ireland, but more so in the Republic, which has not suffered directly the trials and tribulations of the recent Anglo-Irish war. A Safe and Legal (in Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign (SLI) has been established in the Republic and the campaign is supporting an important case three women have brought against the state and which is currently before the European Court of Human Rights. The women argue that their human rights were breached because they were forced to travel abroad for abortions. This is the first direct challenge to the Republic's abortion law before the European court, and, if successful, could bring about radical change.

The situation is more difficult in the North. There was an attempt to attach an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill going through the British Parliament in the last year to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. This was filibustered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and notably his female cabinet ministers. A Member of Parliament, Diane Abbott, has put down an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling on the British government to sanction abortions being available free under the National Health Service to Northern Irish women. At present there is insufficient parliamentary support for that move. By year's end legal responsibility for abortion is expected to pass from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly. There, the combined forces of Unionism and Irish nationalism and republicanism are assembled to block progressive change. It looks as if Northern Irish women have a major fight on their hands and need all the help they can get from their American sisters.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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