Pro-choice activists in Dublin. Photo via
Names and identities in this article have been changed.
"This is what it's coming to," said Katie. "These stickers are popping up on lampposts all over town." The Dublin streetlamp she's pointing at, along with many others around the city, has been branded with a large, pink dot beneath the words, "A SAFE ABORTION WITH PILLS." It's part of an ad campaign for a website selling miscarriage-inducing drugs, a good deal of which are being snapped up by young Irish women for whom abortion remains a stigma that can't be addressed openly.
"Vulnerable girls and women are ordering shite like this online and hiding away to ride it out and hope for the best. It's hideous," Katie told me, repulsed. Ten years ago, she—like tens of thousands of Irish women have in the past decade—made a secret trip to the UK to terminate her pregnancy. But today, abortion in Ireland is still illegal and divisive. Politicians may have voted overwhelmingly to introduce limited abortion last week, pushing the bill onto the next stage, but even if it were passed, it would only allow women who were deemed to be sufficiently "suicidal" to stop unwanted pregnancies in their tracks.
Ireland's quietest export—women who travel to the UK seeking an abortion—is often referred to in the country's ferocious abortion debate. But the less publicized practice of self-administering—when Irish women order their own "abortion pills" online—is actually much more common.
“No one talks about women who self-administer,” says Amy. Four years ago, she carried out an abortion on herself using a pill bought from the internet. “We talk about our 5,000 women a year who travel, but no one talks about the really dark underbelly of self-administering, and there are far more of us. We’re swept under the carpet.”
Anti-abortion posters in Dublin. Photo courtesy of @redlemonader
“This kind of abortion is a lot more common than people think,” said Cathy Doherty from the Abortion Rights Campaign. “Before I’d heard of it, I never really thought you’d still have the 'back-alley abortion’ in Ireland these days—women sitting alone in their houses, still desperate enough to try it.”
The Irish Eighth Amendment of 1983 introduced a constitutional ban on abortion, including administering abortions on yourself or assisting anyone else in doing so. Last year, the Irish Medicines Board seized and destroyed 487 abortifacients (pills that induce abortion) that had made their way into the Republic. Some websites require women to order their package to an address in Northern Ireland before sneaking it over the border into the south.
Source and take one of these pills and you've incontrovertibly broken the law. But, for many Irish women, the threat of legal repercussions and health risks still outweigh the financial and emotional costs of seeking aid in the UK. Pro-choice groups in Ireland estimate that, between last-minute flights, accommodation, and paying for the procedure itself, an Irish woman would need upwards of €1,000 (about $1,300) in the bank to afford a legal abortion, not to mention the potential costs of taking time off of work.
And if you can’t afford to make a trip to the UK, chances are you can’t afford to support a newborn baby. In certain cases, a self-administered abortion seems the only way out.
“I was terrified that I was pregnant—terrified," says Amy. "If I had gone ahead with that pregnancy, I would be in an absolute poverty trap. I was entitled to nothing. No social support, no social welfare, no rent allowance, no job seeker's benefit, no maternity support… I would have had nothing to feed myself and raise that child with. So, those were my choices: spend money that I don’t have—that I couldn’t get from anywhere—or do this. So I did it.
“I was scared during it, because it was a lot more painful than I expected it to be. It doesn’t last for very long, but it’s quite a strange experience. Kind of about halfway through I was like, ‘OK, this is too sore, I’m going to stop this now and go and have the surgical procedure,’ even though, you know, you can’t possibly stop it.”
Pro-life activists in Dublin. Photo via
If women are able to acquire the correct pills, misoprostol and mifepristone, it's likely that, while painful, the self-administering will be safe. But if things go wrong—if the website they ordered from sends them dodgy pills, for example—and they end up in the hospital, women are forced to find a way to convince medical staff that they suffered a natural miscarriage, or risk facing prosecution.
A few of the websites claiming to offer the abortion pills are bogus; sometimes the pills never arrive, sometimes they’re fake. Despite the fact they're pinned to lampposts, the website advertised on the stickers in Dublin seems to be the most trustworthy. It’s part of a dedicated campaign, working in 13 different languages to send abortion medication to women in countries all over the world where safe terminations are inaccessible. It also provides phoney prescriptions for Misoprostol, a consultation with a doctor, and a thorough amount of advice and access to research. It has a recommended donation of €90 ($117.00), but women who can't afford that can donate what they're able to.
“Self-administering is a lot safer than other methods women might use to make themselves miscarry," Mara told me. "I would credit that website with saving lives all over the world.”
“Women in Ireland, just like all other women in the world, need abortions,” said a spokesperson from the website. “The legal status has no impact on their need to access abortions. Those women are you and me, our sisters, friends, and mothers. Making abortion illegal doesn't reduce abortion rates at all, it only makes abortions unsafe—pushes [them] underground.”
“The Department of Health will tell you that the number of women seeking abortion is going down, but our numbers are going through the roof,” adds Mara Clarke, Director of the Abortion Support Network, an organization that uses donations to help Irish women get safe abortions. “We deal with the desperate women, because you would need to be desperate to call up a stranger and ask for money. We hear, ‘I sold the car,’ ‘I cut off the landline,’ ‘I returned the Christmas presents,’ just to try to get an abortion.”
The abortion pill stickers are popping up around the Irish capital at the same time as graphic anti-abortion posters and billboards. Abortions happen legally in Ireland in extremely limited circumstances. The fact that you may soon be able to get one if you can prove you're suicidal isn't likely to help very many—especially given that you would have to prove it to a panel of six doctors, which just seems cruel to the point of being dystopic.
“It’s shit,” said Mara Clarke about the proposed change to the abortion law. “It is a testament to how horrific the situation is for women that this legislation is being called a victory. We have mothers calling us, telling us that their 18-year-old daughter drank a bottle of floor cleaner after she was raped at her own birthday party. We hear about women taking whole packets of birth control and washing it down with vodka.
“A woman who is suicidal who can travel [to the UK for an abortion] isn’t going to face a panel of six people,” says Cathy from the Abortion Rights Campaign. “The only women who’ll have to do that are the really, really desperate women.”
The new legislation is restrictive, but pro-life groups want to keep it that way, claiming that if abortion law in Ireland becomes any more similar to Britain's approach, the “floodgates would open,” angering many who have ethical objections to the practice.
“We have the floodgates open!” says Amy. “We have 5,000 women traveling a year, and God knows how many self-administering. The floodgates are open, we just don’t talk about it. We are not a country free of abortion. Regardless of what you think about abortion as an ethical thing, women will always have abortions. Always. Always—regardless of how unsafe it is.”
Follow Ellen on Twitter: @ellenmcoyne
More on abortion in Ireland: The Holy War On Irish Wombs