When news broke last week that the number of Irish women having abortions in the UK had dropped considerably, responses were predictable. The anti-abortion groups were out quickly to welcome the news. The pro-choice campaign suggested austerity budgets were to blame, with fewer women financially able to travel abroad.
Nobody would for a moment argue that a reduction in abortions is a bad thing. No matter how fervently pro-choice, the vast majority of us don’t believe abortion is an ideal solution to anything. The pro-choice position of ‘free, safe, legal’, isn’t to suggest that we should all be having one annually for the good of our health. It’s merely a recognition that sometimes things go wrong and that, for whatever reason, a woman may not be in a position to continue a pregnancy. So on the face of it, a reduction in abortions should be a very good thing.
And there are some factors that would contribute to this. Better sex education, better availability of contraception and a more open attitude to sex and relationships.
The main one is probably the availability of contraception. As a 17 year old from a country village beginning college in 2002, I remember being floored at the sheer number of condoms everywhere. In student welcome packs, in baskets on countertops, in machines in the college bars, prominently placed in the college pharmacy.
Coming from a small village where my parents were friendly with both pharmacist and doctor, and the first pub didn’t introduce a condom machine for a couple of years after that, it was certainly news to me that contraception was easily available. Realistically, had I needed it before then, I’d have had to fabricate a reason to go to the city by bus – for an entire day – to visit either a family planning clinic (wouldn’t have entered my head) or buy condoms in a pharmacy (I’d have died of embarrassment, and I’d have never kept them secret with my mother’s detective skills in play). These days most pubs have condom machines and supermarkets sell them, although it’s still hard to see how teenagers in rural areas can access contraception easily.
But for adults, particularly those in bigger towns and cities, all the barriers to contraception are easily surmountable. Condoms are cheap. The pill is available once you have €50 or a medical card and a GP who’s not from the stone age. The morning after pill is more accessible than ever. So it is likely that overall rates of crisis pregnancy have gone down.
But, with any statistical evidence like this, it’s worth parsing the figures a little bit. The numbers we have come from the British Department of Health and show that, in 2015, 3,451 women attending abortion clinics in England and Wales gave Irish addresses. This was a slight reduction from 3,735 in 2014. It’s almost half the 6,673 recorded in 2001.
We’ve all heard the phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. And it’s fair to assume that many Irish women who have abortions in the UK do not give their real address. That’s lies taken care of. And there cannot be a woman of the age left in Ireland who doesn’t have a friend now living in the UK whose address she could use for this purpose.
These statistics are desperately incomplete, because they omit the stark reality that over 100,000 Irish women of childbearing age no longer live in Ireland. They take the number of women of childbearing age living in Ireland at any one time to be a static figure.
While women in their 20s do not account for all the women who become pregnant or seek abortions, they’re a significant cohort. And the number of women in their 20s in Ireland has dropped, very significantly. According to the CSO, 390,000 women in their 20s lived in Ireland in 2008. By 2014, that figure had reduced by a third. Much of that is down to emigration – according to the Nevin Institute, about 480,000 people left Ireland in the same period.
Where do Irish people go when they emigrate? England. Australia. Canada. Countries where abortion is easily accessible, where you can seek the help of a healthcare professional, the support of your friends, and the comfort of your own bed afterwards. And where you don’t have to tell anyone your nationality. Where you are no longer part of the sad procession of Irish women trudging from plane to train to taxi to clinic and back in one day or two, alone and lonely, and where you become a name and a human and not a number.
The figures also ignore the reality that you no longer have to leave Ireland to procure an abortion. It’s a desperate measure, but procuring abortion pills online is a cheaper option.
In 2014 alone, the Health Products Regulatory Authority intercepted 1,017 unit doses of abortifacients. Those are the ones they intercepted – we have absolutely no way of knowing how many reached their targets and were consumed, inducing abortions without medical supervision or help, with women afraid that revealing what they are doing could result in a criminal conviction, as it recently did for a woman in Northern Ireland whose housemates reported her to the police.
Each one of the figures I’ve quoted above is a woman with a story of her own. Every single one of those thousands of women must have felt she had no choice, whether she took a pill, travelled or emigrated. And every one of them resides somewhere in the grey area between the extremes of the abortion debate, where the majority of the country rests. Only a referendum on the Eighth Amendment will show the reality of Irish attitudes to abortion, and maybe then we will learn just how many of our friends, neighbours, sisters, mothers and daughters have been in that lonely procession.
This piece was first published in the Evening Echo.