In Northern Ireland the law forbids women from having an abortion unless there is a ‘serious risk to a pregnant woman’s life or of long term damage to her mental or physical health’.
Just 23 NHS abortions took place in Northern Ireland in 2014, as opposed to the 200,000 in England. Many women cross over the channel to England to obtain an abortion. The youngest of which has been recorded as just 13.
Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or unlawfully use any instrument shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life.
[Section 58, Offences Against the Person Act, 1861].
“I was scared. Pregnancy at this age was something I never envisioned. Sure, I had heard stories of it happening, but I was using contraception. I was in my final year of university and I had career plans. There was no way I could bring a baby into this world.”
Elsie is 24 and pays taxes to the British government. In every other guise she is considered a British citizen, whether she identifies with it or not, but not when it comes to matters of her health.
A poll released by Amnesty International in 2014 indicated that 69% of people in Northern Ireland feel that abortion should be legalised in the case of rape. However, two years on and women still face life imprisonment if they choose to have an abortion under these circumstances. If Elsie were living in Britain she could have a consultation with an independent abortion clinic, such as Bpas, who would provide her with an abortion provided for by the NHS. She would be given a tablet and supervised throughout the process.
However, as a Northern Irish woman Elsie has two choices. Travel to Britain for a private abortion not subsidised by the NHS, or buy abortion pills online. The first costs around £2,000. The latter is far cheaper, but if discovered in possession of this medication, Elsie faces life imprisonment.
Elsie was living in Belfast in a shared house with four other girls when she discovered she was six weeks pregnant. Brought up in a strict Catholic household, she recognised there was no possibility of relaying the news of her unexpected pregnancy to her parents.
“I considered my options and knew that an abortion was my only possibility. I live off beans on toast and work part- time in a shop, goodness knows how I would support a new-born child,” she explains.
Figures released by the Department of Health show that approximately 200,000 UK women had an abortion in 2014, provided and paid for by the NHS. Elsie was not afforded the luxury of a safe environment whereby she could undergo the procedure. Instead, she lied to her friends and family, borrowed money from her ex-partner and traveled alone to the UK.
It is a journey so many desperate young women have taken. Alone and frightened, Elsie explains how when she hit the tarmac of Heathrow airport she ‘was filled with dread and apprehension’. Yet she wasn’t alone in her venture. Daily flights from Belfast to London have become popular routes for women needing an abortion.
“There were four other Northern Irish girls on my flight, we didn’t speak, but we all instinctively knew what the other was doing.”
Elsie was 6 weeks pregnant, which meant she was eligible for a medical abortion. As a British woman undergoing a medical abortion, Elsie would have taken two pills over the process of three days and be monitored closely by medical staff. However, Elsie could not cover the cost of a hotel, and therefore chose to have the full dosage of pills in one day.
“After the second tablet I changed into a nappy for my journey home. I was so afraid that I would bleed all over the seats. The cramps were so painful, but I didn’t have the money to book myself into a hotel,” Elsie tells me.
It is ill-advised for women to travel back home to Northern Ireland after their procedure, as abdominal pain and bleeding can be excessively painful after the intake of the second tablet. The first tablet contains mifepristone, which blocks the hormone that makes the lining of the womb suitable for the fertilized egg. Little bleeding and mild abdominal cramps occur. The second tablet, prostaglandin, will break the lining of the womb along with the embryo through bleeding from the vagina. This part is particularly painful and uncomfortable for the woman.
Many Northern Irish women without financial means to book into a hotel for the night choose to return home the same day. The risk is high. If excessive bleeding or hemorrhaging occurs, then it is vital the woman visits a doctor. However, if she has returned to Northern Ireland and her symptoms become known, she then risks facing the prospect of prosecution.
Elsie chose not to spend the night in London as it was, “far too expensive and my friends and family would grow suspicious.” Instead she caught the night flight home, bleeding heavily and experiencing the on-going cramping pain of an induced miscarriage.
“It was the most traumatic and scary experience of my life. Getting on that plane home I could feel the line of my womb pouring out of me. There I sat, on a cheap Ryanair flight, bleeding and hoping to god I didn’t stain the seats.”
It is a bleak and painful image that Elsie conjures up with her testimony, yet it is an image that appears to be a regular occurrence.
Data released by the Department of Health in 2014 state there were 5,521 abortions of non-UK residents carried out in hospitals and clinics. The actual figure is believed to be much more, as many Northern Irish women put fake UK addresses on their paperwork.
However, there is another, more convenient way for women to access an abortion in Northern Ireland. For £90, Elsie could have contacted Women on Web, a Dutch pro-choice organisation who offer non-surgical abortions to women. She could have filled out the paperwork and been sent misoprostol in the post. In the sterile environment of her shared student bathroom she could have taken the tablet and induced a spontaneous miscarriage. However, there is a flaw.
Women on Web stipulate there is a ‘risk of heavy bleeding for which a woman will have to be treated by a doctor”. If Elsie had visited her local GP and they suspected she had forced herself to miscarry she could face life imprisonment.
The availability of abortion pills online has sparked controversy after a recent 21-year-old living in Belfast was given a three-month sentence for purchasing abortion pills over the Internet. She was prosecuted when her housemate contacted local police after finding a male foetus in a garbage bag outside the house. The woman, who was 19 at the time, could not afford an abortion in the UK.
Her prosecution has sparked public debate. Mara Clarke, founder of Abortion Support Network, a charity providing information on financial assistance and abortion options for Northern Irish women, said placing restrictions on abortion ‘doesn’t stop abortion’.
“It just means that, when faced with needing an abortion, women with money have options and women without money have babies, or do dangerous and desperate things.”
‘Dangerous’ here referring to women injecting chemicals, throwing themselves down stairs and drinking gin in a hot bath, all actions which Mara has encountered during her time at Abortion Support Network.
“It makes me wonder what century Northern Ireland is stuck in,” she tells me.
While many pro-rights campaigners stress the laws in Northern Ireland are ‘barbaric’, abortion remains a hugely emotive subject, which debates opinion from both sides of the sectarian divides.
Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life, calls abortion the ‘silent holocaust’ which claims more than ‘50 million lives worldwide’. While Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of Bpas notes how “1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetime. It is time that politicians back off from women’s personal lives.”
Often the core of the issue is the ambiguity surrounding when ‘life’ begins. Anthony Ozimic, Director of Communications for the Society for Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) says, ‘human life begins at conception, and every life has an equal right to life’. However with the many thousands of cases of women not only wanting, but also needing an abortion, the result is never as clear as the slogans suggest.
In cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormalities, women in Northern Ireland are not permitted a legal abortion. Anthony Ozimic is adamant this is positive legislation for, “studies show for many women who are victims of rape that having the child can prove to be a healing process. We see abortion really as an infliction of a second trauma on the mother, it doesn’t turn back time, the rape has happened and the incest has happened.”
The SPUC further advocate, “There are no medical circumstances that require abortion”. However there are cases, where for the benefit of the mother’s mental and physical health, an abortion was deemed necessary.
Sarah was 38 and the mother of two small boys when she discovered she was pregnant. After the difficult birth of her second child she was advised not to get pregnant again. Her conception failed and Sarah had the difficult decision of keeping her baby and risking her health, or safeguarding her well being by having an abortion.
“For the sake of my children and my own mental health I chose to have an abortion,” she tells me.
Although the doctor advised Sarah that pregnancy was quite dangerous in her condition, she was still unable to have an abortion in Belfast. Under the façade of a weekend away, Sarah and her husband arranged childcare and travelled to London on an Easy Jet flight. The expense amounted to £2,100.
Many of these women making the passage to England have unplanned pregnancies. However, there are still a number of women who have planned their pregnancies and are devastated to give up their child.
Louise was delighted to be a mother for the first time, but a scan at 20 weeks revealed the unborn child had severe abnormalities and would die as soon as it was born. Louise knew she could not endure the emotional burden of carrying her first child for nine months for it then to die shortly after birth. Her GP was incredibly sympathetic, but advised there was nothing he could do. Louise was not permitted an abortion in her native Northern Ireland and had to raise £2,000 in two weeks in order to beat the 24 week cut-off date in the UK.
“The memory of that time still haunts me,” she says. “We were recently married and desperate for a child. To find out at 20 weeks that we were carrying a child with severe abnormalities was heart breaking. I couldn’t endure the emotional suffering of losing a child whom I carried for nine months.”
The law in Northern Ireland stipulates that Louise must carry her child to the end of her trimester or face the possibility of life imprisonment if she had an abortion in Belfast.
Polls and figures collected from Amnesty International suggest that the law does not reflect public opinion, and yet further guidelines were issued in March 2016 outlining how foetal abnormalities and rape are still not causes for an abortion in Northern Ireland. Former Mayor of Derry and Social Democratic and Labour politician (SDLP), Pat Ramsey is a consistent supporter of pro life and in total opposition to abortion. He reiterated statements when questioned about pro-life policy, saying he “defends the right to the unborn child”. His peer, SDLP party member Alistair McDonnell is a little more controversial. Mr McDonnell has previously noted how he was “unequivocally opposed to abortion” including insistence’s of foetal abnormality as “the predictions in those circumstances are never really accurate”.
The SDLP and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are the two main political fractions in Northern Ireland who unequivocally oppose abortion. For legislation to be introduced safeguarding women’s health and allowing women, like Louise, to access free and safe abortion on their native soil, the motion would have to be passed by the Members of the Legislative Assembly, the majority of which are opposed to abortion.
Gorretti Hogan from Alliance for Choice says, “The law doesn’t represent public opinion.” At a speech in Conway Hall for the We Trust Women Campaign, Ms Hogan repeated the words of Gloria Stein: “the government ends when my skin begins”.
Currently a woman who has been raped or suffered incest in Northern Ireland, actions which violate her body to its core, still cannot make decisions based on her mental and physical health or well being. Parliamentary legislation does it for her.
The desperate pilgrimage to England for an abortion is an all too common story. Elsie and many of her fellow female peers have embarked on the physical and emotionally perilous journey across the channel. At 24, Elsie’s clandestine voyage is her secret, and her memories of excessive bleeding and clinical unfamiliar hospital rooms are visual souvenirs she carries with her.
“I wasn’t ready to have a child and I could not raise a child at this age. My choice was my punishment. I had to scurry to England like a fugitive and pay a lot of money for the right to choose what I do with my body.”
*Names have been changed