Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News
Sarah was just two weeks pregnant when she discovered an illegal abortion bus was coming to town."I have a four year old girl, I have a mortgage, it's a new relationship, it's not a good time," the 31-year-old told VICE News, adding that she had been using contraception. "I just started a degree course, I work, I can't afford a baby right now."Sarah — who asked that we change her name — lives in Limerick, a small, riverside city on the southwest of Ireland, a country where abortions are almost always illegal. She was making arrangements to travel to the UK to obtain a termination when she found out about a direct action, organized by a group called called ROSA (short for Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism, and Austerity), which might be able to help her.
Related: We Traveled Onboard the Irish 'Abortion Bus' That's Giving Illegal Pills to WomenVICE News spent two days this week traveling around Ireland with this group of activists and one member of parliament who had decided to wilfully break the law and risk up to 14 years in prison by distributing the World Health Organization-approved medical abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol to women.Their whistle-stop tour of the country finished on Saturday, but participants told VICE News on Monday that they have still had no contact from the police, something they say proves authorities are unwilling to prosecute people under the anti-abortion law because they welcome "escape valves."Despite protests and media attention, a significant number of women came to the bus to ask for help, and VICE News can confirm that at least one — Sarah — procured pills for imminent use, while others will be given them over the next few days.
The bus traveled to four cities — Dublin, Galway, Limerick, and Cork — attracting both pro-choice supporters and anti-abortion protesters along the way. Women seeking the pills were undeterred by the so-called pro-lifers. "If they need help, they will come," one of the activists remarked, and she was right.The Irish constitution recognizes the life of the "unborn child" as equal to that of its mother, meaning terminations are criminalized even in cases of incest, rape, or fatal fetal abnormality. A referendum would be needed to change the law, but most politicians seem extremely hesitant to address the issue.
As a result, between 10 and 12 Irish women travel to the UK every day for abortions and have been doing so for years, according to figures compiled by Amnesty International — one of many human rights group campaigning for a change to the law. This option isn't available to migrants with visa issues, minors in the care of the state, or any woman who can't afford the estimated 1,500 euros ($1,654) it would cost them.Related: A Legal Loophole Has Legalized Ecstasy in Ireland — Until ThursdayTravelling to Britain was something Sarah considered. "Going through that and having to stay in a hotel on your own, I wasn't looking forward to having to do that," she told VICE News.Instead, she found out about the abortion pill bus through social media, and got in touch with one of the organizers in advance. "I did as much research as I possibly could," she said. "If you can talk to someone at all just understand that if you can afford it the best option is to go to the UK because it's safer and you have a doctor and you can be completely checked out. Just try not to do it alone, just in case."Sarah said that in Limerick she has friends who will stay with her, and "I can do it from the comfort of my own home."At the time we spoke, she hadn't told the man she's seeing, though she said she sensed he would agree with her decision."I haven't told my parents either, my parents wouldn't be very supportive, my mother is quite religious. It's my choice and I don't have to tell them," she said.
To obtain the pills on Friday, Sarah said she came straight from work to O'Connell Street, where the abortion pill bus had parked and campaigners and protesters had begun competing chants. "I came upon [the commotion] from the side — the wrong side. I was stopped by the pro-life people on the wrong side of the road, a young girl aged 17 who was American asked could she chat to me for a minute. She then said abortion was genocide; that 2 million abortions are carried out each year in the US. I'm quite headstrong but that upset me."On the law as it stands, Sarah said: "[Abortion] has been demonized and criminalized in this country and older generations think there's something really wrong with it but it's something that should be available to people."Going through having a child if you don't want it is not a better option than having an abortion. I suppose the church still has control over your lives."Sarah has had a miscarriage before, so she said she knows what to expect. "I did have a miscarriage with complications. I'm a bit nervous about it but I know what to look for. I do feel that I know enough about what's going to happen next."If "something went wrong," Sarah said she would go to the hospital but certainly wouldn't tell them what she had taken. Referring to the infamous death of Indian-born dentist Savita Halappanavar, who died from septicemia in a Galway hospital after being refused a termination that would have saved her life, Sarah said: "We all know what happened in Galway a few years and you never know what a doctor's opinion might be and what you can tell them."
The current law illustrates clearly that there is not enough separation between the state and the Catholic church, Sarah argued."I'm atheist and I have a daughter who's not christened and I can see every day how much the [Catholic] church interferes in our life every day when it comes to school," she said. More than 90 percent of state-funded primary schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic church, with a growing number of non-Catholic parents now beginning to complain about "religious discrimination" in schools."They need to separate our constitution and our legislative system from the church. It needs to be about human rights and people need to be put first," she said.
Women and girls who obtained the pills were required to complete an online questionnaire compiled by the Dutch pro-choice group Women on Web.Queries include whether a pregnancy test or an ultrasound has been taken, and the form asks women to confirm that they aren't being coerced into seeking an abortion.The text also warns: "Different women have different feelings about the decision to have an abortion. You might feel guilty, confused, selfish, stupid, scared, peaceful, afraid, happy, resolved, grieving, ashamed, irresponsible, sad, numb, comfortable, confident, angry, trapped, doubtful, relieved, disappointed, or any other feeling."Related: Ireland Just Became the First Country to Approve Gay Marriage by a Popular Vote
Sarah was not the only person to seek help from the bus. VICE News witnessed several other women coming on board asking for advice and pills. "I'm in trouble," one volunteered straight away. Others — too afraid to approach the bus in Cork city because of the large number of anti-abortion campaigners — were met surreptitiously by an activist in a nearby clothes shop.Some women came on board to share their experiences — one had taken medical abortion pills just last June.Sarah said direct action like the bus was important. "It's drawn attention which is the biggest thing."When asked about criticism from anti-abortion campaigners that the action was "irresponsible," she responded: "In some ways I can see the argument in that people have to do it at home without a doctors' support, but we don't have that option, so what can you do? This is the best option."A change in the law would mean women didn't "have to be afraid to seek help," Sarah said, before adding: "I'm not irresponsible. I use contraception. It failed. Nothing is 100 percent. Abortion is a horrible thing to have to go through. Nobody is using this as a form of contraception. It's more responsible to make this decision than to have a child that's not wanted."Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd