A British-based group is assisting Irishwomen in need of material help who are travelling for abortions in the UK, writes CAROL RYAN
‘THERE IS this belief that if you make abortion against the law you stop abortion, but you don’t. All you do is you make it inconvenient for women and couples that have financial resources and you make it desperate for women and couples who don’t.”
American mother-of-one Mara Clarke is the founder of Abortion Support Network (ASN), a London-based organisation that offers finance and accommodation to Irish women travelling to the UK for an abortion.
ASN was set up in 2009, inheriting the work of a grassroots network called the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group that operated in the early 1980s. She is scathing about the burden that Ireland’s abortion laws put on women with little or no money. The cost of an abortion in the UK, before factoring in travel and accommodation costs, varies from €400 to €1,600, depending on how far along the woman is in her pregnancy. “We are here to bring a little bit of equality to abortion access. Women with money have options . . . we help the women who the only thing standing between them and ending an unplanned pregnancy is money.”
Eve (not her real name) had a crisis pregnancy last October and contacted ASN seeking their help to cover part of the cost of an abortion. After receiving money, she travelled to a clinic in Liverpool in November. “Irish women have to worry about the cost of flights; if you have to stay overnight you need to pay for accommodation, the cost of the procedure, and if you have children already you have to worry who is going to mind them for the day. It makes things much harder . . . I had to borrow from a moneylender with a ridiculous amount of interest,” she says.
ASN says it gave money in June to a couple who already had a large family and were facing an unplanned pregnancy. They explained that under normal circumstances they would have continued with the pregnancy, but decided to have an abortion because they were undergoing financial hardship since the husband had lost his job.
Another young couple who recently contacted the network had been trying to raise money for an abortion for months. By the time they had saved enough they found they had been pushed into the next price bracket, and the woman was almost at the legal limit of 24 weeks.
ASN’s “abortion fund” is, unsurprisingly, controversial. Unlike in the US where hundreds of similar networks have been set up to give women without health insurance access to safe abortion, ASN is the only fund of its kind in Europe, and the only network offering help specifically to Irishwomen. Online comments about it range from claims it “encourages the damaging of families, the killing of children, [and] encourages young people to engage in casual sex”, to praise for the work of a “fantastic organisation”.
Asked to comment on the work of ASN, spokesperson for The Life Institute Niamh Ui Bhriain said: “It is sad that if people are going to put time and money into a crisis pregnancy situation that they wouldn’t try to protect both human lives involved. I wouldn’t like to think [ASN] put ideological beliefs ahead of what is best for women in these situations, or that to them the right to have an abortion is more important than what is right for the woman involved.”
She says there are anti-abortion groups offering practical help to women facing unplanned pregnancies. “People need to know that there are organisations like Life and Freya Care who will help women to have their babies. [Freya Care] recently counselled a woman who didn’t have any money and was very panicked, very fearful. Phone calls were made and one woman in the midlands who runs a baby shop sent up a brand new cot. Other people sent money or baby clothes and she got through it. That kind of thing happens a lot under the radar but it doesn’t get commented on.”
Demand for ASN’s service now outstrips the amount of money they have to give. Figures released by the Department of Health in Britain show the number of Irish women travelling to the UK for abortions has fallen for the 10th year in a row from a peak of 6,673 in 2001 to 4,149 in 2011. However, calls to ASN have tripled since 2009, perhaps due to financial pressures caused by the recession. “We constantly hear ‘unemployed’, ‘recession’, ‘benefits’ and ‘can’t find work’,” says Clarke. “In our first year we were hearing from five women a month, in our second year we were hearing from 17 and in our third year we are averaging 28 to 30 women a month.”
ASN is a registered charity and relies on public donations which come in from individuals in Ireland, England, Sweden, Germany, America, Canada, France and Mexico. Thirty volunteers are involved in running the network. They act as hosts, putting women up in their homes when they come over for an abortion, and they also work shifts answering calls on the organisation’s helpline.
Gillian Ni Cheallaigh is one of two Irish women volunteering with the network. She had an abortion in 1995 while a student and says that while it was the right decision, having to travel to Britain made the experience “more traumatic than it needed to be”. She has lived in the UK for several years and got involved with the network when it was set up in 2009.
“I felt this was a practical way to offer support. I know Irish society and how difficult it can be for anyone to talk about abortion . . . I thought that I could offer a balance to that. I feel very strongly that it is only when Irish women who have had abortions start speaking out and naming themselves that there is any hope of Irish society realising that abortion is something that happens to women they know all the time.”
If you want to donate to the Abortion Support Network this is how: http://www.abortionsupport.org.uk/support-us/donate/