Getting an abortion in Ireland is near impossible. In the 21st century, the governments of both north and south have more control over women’s wombs than women themselves do.
In Northern Ireland, abortion is still illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, as the 1967 Abortion Act, which partially decriminalised abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, does not apply there. Women who are found guilty of having an abortion face a sentence of up to life in prison. In the Republic of Ireland, abortion is also illegal, under the much-protested Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution.
This leaves women living in Ireland who want to terminate their pregnancies with two options: risk jail by procuring an illegal abortion or travel to England to access private services. Over the past five years, almost 25,000 Irish women have made the journey to England to access abortion services. And, with many women unable to afford the journey and the cost of private abortion services, many more are left with no option but to procure illegal abortion medication.
In response to Ireland’s refusal to recognise abortion rights, women have taken matters into their own hands. Women on Waves, an organisation that provides abortion care for women outside of the territorial waters of countries, has been running in Ireland for over 15 years. More recently, on 1 September, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) launched a free telephone aftercare helpline for women who have bought abortion medication online in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. Most women who are forced to buy abortion pills illegally fear being caught and prosecuted, and therefore tend not to seek consultation before or after taking the medication – even when there are complications.
The bpas helpline is just one way in which abortion-rights organisations are taking a stand against the illiberal climate in Ireland. Women on Web and Women Help Women are two non-profit services providing online support and abortion pills for women living outside of England, Scotland and Wales. Also, a coalition of abortion-rights organisations made the news recently by flying abortion pills to Ireland using drones, in what they called an ‘act of defiance’. With mass protests calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and the decriminalisation of abortion in the north, the question remains: why are women still having to fight for reproductive freedom?