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What It's Like Helping Women Get the Abortions They Need

Travelling abroad to access safe and legal abortion can be lonely and isolating. That's where the volunteer hosts from Abortion Support Network come in.

by Tara Evans
Jun 8 2016, 9:00pm

Illustration by Eleanor Doughty

"You don't get many details. Just a name and a tiny bit of info about them," says Priya, a 28-year old filmmaker who lives in Liverpool.

"If it was me, I would want someone to do it for me," she adds. "They get off the flight in a country they may have never been to before. They don't know where the clinic is. They don't know where anything is."

Pryia is one a handful of volunteers helping out women travelling from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to England for terminations. "To have someone to come and get you and take you to the places you need to go... It takes some stress out of an already very stressful situation."

She meets women at the clinic or airport, depending on what they need. She'll cook them food if they want. They might want to watch a film together; they might want to be alone. "They might not want to talk," Priya says, "but if they do, then I just listen."

She was so afraid that someone would wonder where her suitcase was. So she brought her child's little school bag.

Abortion Support Network is a London-based charity that provides financial support and accommodation to women travelling from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to England for abortions.

In 2009, ASN had just four phone calls; last year they had 648. If calls continue at the same pace this year, they will have heard from 800 people in 2016.

The ones who need a place to stay are usually later-term, because by the time they can afford to come over they need a surgical abortion, which can be a two day procedure. It may also be due to transport—if you don't live near a major airport, then a day trip is near impossible. Sometimes the women need to stay a night because it supports the lie they've told to friends and family.

Read more: Why Trans Women Belong in the Fight for Abortion Rights

Women usually travel to Liverpool or Manchester and sometimes London. Hosts needs to live within 30 minutes of an airport by tube, bus or car, and they also need to be nearby a clinic.

In England, Scotland, and Wales women are able to choose whether they want to continue with a pregnancy—for whatever reason—as long as two doctors agree that an "abortion would cause less damage to a woman's physical or mental health than continuing with a pregnancy."

Despite being part of the UK, this does not apply to Northern Ireland, where abortion is only available under strict criteria. Those rules do not stretch to fatal foetal abnormalities, rape, or incest.

Photo by Mosuno via Stocksy

The rules are even tighter in the Republic of Ireland. It took the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year old dentist who died in October 2012 from complications from a septic miscarriage, before the government issued guidance that terminations are allowed when the pregnancy presents a real and substantial risk to the mother's life.

Halappanavar's husband has said that she'd asked doctors to induce her several times because she was miscarrying and in severe pain, but she was refused.

The result of these strict rules is thousands of women every year travel over to England to have abortions or are self-administering illegal early medical abortion pills.

The screening process and training for hosts is based on the same programme that the Haven Coalition—a charity that helps women travelling to New York City for abortions—who have been hosting women since 1999.

Read more: Looking Back on a Horrendous Year for Abortion Rights

Every host is interviewed, checked, and trained. ASN sends out an email to hosts with some basic details: usually just the name, the dates they need hosting, and a tiny sliver of information about the person travelling over.

Hosts can then reply to say if they are available or not. If they are needed then the ASN will send over details of their arrival. There is no 'matching' process—all hosts are assessed to be capable of looking after women that travel over.

Sally, a 57-year-old retired teacher who is originally from Belfast, helps to host these women with her partner Fred, 60, at their home near Manchester. One of their guests turned up with nothing but a few possessions stuffed into a tiny backpack.

"She was so afraid that someone would wonder where her suitcase was. So she brought her child's little school bag," Sally says.


WATCH: The Abortion Pill


Over the past three years they've hosted 15 women. They try and make the room as comfortable as possible, making up the bed with a nice set of bedding and keeping sanitary towels and a spare toothbrush handy.

It's rare that hosts will keep in touch with their guests. "It can be very emotional. Some women have left us thank you cards or messages have been sent by family once they've returned home," Sally says.

In 2015, ASN hosted 33 people. It primarily gives advice and often money to women who do need to travel. The funding is assessed on a case by case basis.They don't ask why they want the abortion; they don't even ask if they are women.

Dee, 28, who is originally from Northern Ireland but now lives in Liverpool, says: "It's really important that they have a safe place to stay. A lot of them haven't told anyone where they are going. It can be terrifying."

NHS guidelines state that an abortion should generally be carried out as early in the pregnancy as possible, usually before 12 weeks and ideally before nine weeks. This isn't always an option for women who need to travel, especially if they don't have the cash. The procedure is not available on the NHS for those who do make the journey, even for Northern Irish women.

And the longer you wait, the more expensive it gets. For pregnancies up to 14 weeks in, the costs are anywhere between £330 and £410; up to 19 weeks, it costs £585 to £610. Anyone who is over 19 weeks will need to pay a staggering £1,290 to £1,350.

Read more: What It's Like to Endure a Forced Waiting Period Before Your Abortion

Primarily, ANS provides telephone advice to women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. "There was a mother of four who said to us, quite matter-of-factly, 'I've been trying to figure out how to crash my car to cause a miscarriage but not to permanently injure myself and die,'" says Mara Clarke, the founder of Abortion Support Network.

She tells me about the caller who took three packs of birth control pills and bottle of gin. Another threw herself down the stairs. Others drank bleach or floor cleaner.

"And yeah," she adds, "we did have a client who said she'd gone out and bought heroin, even though she was not a drug user."

For Clarke, a 43-year-old freelance consultant from Illinois, it all started with a broken condom. It was the summer of 2002 and she was living in Sweden. "I walked into a chemist and they gave me the morning-after pill. You couldn't do that in America because you needed prescription."

Legal abortion means nothing if you can't access it.

A few months later she was back living in New York and on the front page of the Village Voice was a story about women travelling to the city to get abortions from other states. A lack of cash meant they would often end up sleeping in bus stations.

Mara says that she's always thought of herself as pro-choice, but that she never realized that "legal abortion means nothing if you can't access it."

After that, she started putting up women who'd made the journey to New York for terminations. She slept on the sofa, while they had her bed.

When she moved to London in 2005 she wanted to help out in a similar way. Then she heard about how Irish women are prohibited from choosing whether or not they can have an abortion.

It was a way to make a difference. She started Abortion Support Network in October 2009 with a mobile phone and a couple of hosts.

Now, six years later two women in Northern Ireland have been convicted for acquiring abortion pills to terminate pregnancy. The pills, which are illegal in the UK and Ireland, are considered safe by the World Health Organization. In fact, they are on their 'essential' medicines list.

The first woman was reported by her housemates to the police. She was given a three-month prison sentence, suspended over 12 months. The second has been charged after helping her daughter to access abortion pills. She awaits sentencing.

Thousands of women make the journey over to England each year: 4,389 last year, according to estimates. Mara says that the ASN only hears and hosts from a small percentage—around 15 percent.

"It's only the desperate ones," she says. "Otherwise they wouldn't be involving strangers in their abortions."

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