Suzanne Lee protesting for changes in Irish abortion laws. Photo by Tyler McNally
Michelle had her abortion alone in a small apartment in Limerick, Ireland.
The 25-year-old postgraduate student waited until her flatmate had left for the weekend before swallowing the pills she'd gone to Belfast to collect earlier that week. "I didn't know her that well," she says. "I didn't know really anyone in the city. I'd just started my Masters and was pregnant after a one-night stand."
She describes taking the pills alone as one of the most terrifying experiences of her life. "I knew it would hurt but I had no idea it would be so bad," she says. "An hour or so after taking the pills I started vomiting and felt like I had the worst fever. Then the cramps started. I was trapped in my tiny bathroom. It went on for six hours. I kept feeling like I was going to pass out and wondered what would happen to me if I bled out. Who could I call? I was completely alone," she says.
Michelle is one of the thousands of Irish women who are forced to illegally order abortion pills online every year to terminate unwanted pregnancies. She could face 14 years in prison for it under Irish law, which criminalizes women who have abortions.
"I couldn't tell anyone why I was sick," she says. "I was so ashamed but now I'm just angry. I felt like an animal, like a creature the Irish state didn't recognize as human."
Like Michelle, Suzanne Lee decided to buy abortion pills online, and she also had to choose who she told carefully. The 22-year-old from Belfast was living in Dublin and couldn't afford to go to the United Kingdom for a legal abortion.
I felt like an animal, like a creature the Irish state didn't recognize as human.
"Close friends knew that I was going down the illegal route, but I guess I was worried about telling other people due to how they'd react. There's a lot of scare stories about how dangerous abortion pills are and I just didn't need the stress of having to justify what I was doing to people," she says.
A pro choice activist for several years, Suzanne took the bold step of contacting the Police Service of Northern Ireland, challenging them to prosecute her for breaking a law she describes as a "joke."
"At the time of getting and taking the pills it never really was a factor that they were illegal. I just didn't want to be pregnant anymore and I guess that's all that was on my mind. The legal implications only occurred to me when I went public and the media were concerned for my safety. At this stage I really don't think the state has the backbone to come after me, the law is just a joke," she says.
According to Wendy Lyon, a human rights lawyer based in Dublin, the Irish Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) would rather turn a blind eye to women like Suzanne and Michelle. Although Irish Customs regularly seize packages en route to the Republic, actually prosecuting women could force lawyers into a human rights quagmire.
"There's no question that anyone who takes the pill in the Republic to induce abortion is in breach of Ireland's abortion laws," she says. "Whether they're likely to be prosecuted for it is another matter. To my knowledge, no one has been. The DPP has discretion whether or not to prosecute and I suspect it would be treated as not being in the public interest to prosecute a woman for inducing her own abortion. They may be more likely to prosecute someone who assists the woman, but even then, I'm not at all sure they'd want the headache of it," she says.
Over 1,017 abortion pills were seized by Irish customs last year—an increase of over 50 percent from 2013. Yet despite reports of ominous sounding letters, no prosecutions were made.
Abortion pills are regularly seized by Irish customs officers, meaning women have to travel to Northern Ireland to get them. Photo via Wikimedia
Rebecca Gomperts set up Women on Web, a campaign group that helps women perform DIY abortions in Ireland and other countries where it is outlawed. "The Irish government have been burying their head in the sand for a very long time," she says. "Irish customs stop the packages so they don't get into Ireland, so women have to go to Northern Ireland to get them. It's terrifying to think that the government is making a big effort to stop women accessing this medicine when they clearly have no other option."
Rebecca is now taking a legal challenge against the Irish government to the European Court of Human Rights, and she wants women to join her case. "The public opinion about medical abortion has changed, there was a lot of things that were unknown but now people have a greater understanding and things are changing. It's the right time to fight," she says.
But are women risking their health performing DIY abortions at home alone? Dr. Tiernan Murray is a member of Doctors for Choice, who agrees with the World Health Organization's view that abortion pills are "very safe." He is, however, concerned that women, like Michelle and Suzanne, who take them alone, could be locked out of proper aftercare.
"The pills are very safe but with any procedure there are certain risks. If women experience severe, outside of a heavy period, pain, this needs medical attention. Very heavy bleeding or hemorrhaging are not supposed to happen, but this is extremely rare. Women should be able to have GP attention if they have any complications," he says.
There are no figures on exactly how many women take abortion pills in Ireland, but Dr. Murray says the process is very frightening.
"Women are aborting in flats in Dublin alone. No matter how much information is available on the internet, that has to be scary. Women don't know what to do and they cannot ring any medical professional safely. If you know your own GP and you know what side they're on, maybe. But lots of women can't do that as they've broken the law and are afraid to call. As long as the law stays the way it is, this is going to remain in the shadows. Is it two women a month? Twenty a month? We just don't know," he says.
Michelle, who says she's never regretted her decision, left Ireland shortly after completing her Master's degree.
"It's not the sole reason I moved, but it's one of them. The more I thought about what I had to do, it's like the women that died using clothes hangers back in the 19th century—it's barbaric and no one wants to admit it. When you're afraid you're going to bleed to death because of a procedure that makes other people in your country uncomfortable, well, that's not a country I want to be part of. Maybe it can change but it's already too late for me," she says.