There are two stories in the latest set of statistics on abortion from the Department of Health. The first one is that, for women in England and Wales, abortion continues to become safer and more accessible. More abortions are taking place in the first ten weeks of gestation. That’s good because it implies that women are increasingly able to get the medical care they need as early as they need it. For the first time, medical abortions account for the majority of procedures – that’s good because it means that fewer women had to go through invasive procedures to end their pregnancies.
The abortion rate overall fell again as well. This is generally understood to be desirable, even if the “right” number of abortions we should be moving towards as a society is not necessarily “fewer” but rather “exactly the same as the number of abortions that women want”. The 1967 Abortion Act – as fudged, flawed and faulty as it is – is working for women, just about, just enough of the time. Women need better legislation, but while we wait for it, this will do, if we don’t think too much about the women it fails, if we don’t make the time to be appalled that abortion in England and Wales remains criminalised under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and is only legal under the stringent condition that two doctors agree a woman knows her own mind.
And then there’s the other story, hinted at in the abortion rate for non-resident women, which increased slightly in 2014. Many of these women will have come from Ireland and Northern Ireland – just a short plane trip away, and in the case of Northern Ireland not even another country, but an entirely different kingdom when it comes to women’s rights and women’s bodies. In Britain, women’s options are constrained and conditional, but there are at least options. In Ireland, there are none: any pregnant woman in Ireland who wishes to decide what happens inside the borders of her own person must begin by leaving the borders of her country.
As the Amnesty report published on Tuesday puts it, women in Ireland are treated like “child-bearing vessels”. This is no hyperbole: a theocratic obsession with exploiting female flesh has led to Irish women living under one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world. In Northern Ireland, the 1967 Abortion Act has never been applied, and in the Republic of Ireland, abortion is covered by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “the right to life of the unborn” is “equal [to the] right to life of the mother” – and note that under the Eighth a woman is legally deemed a “mother” purely by dint of being pregnant, whether she wishes to be so or not. She is instantly subsumed into her relationship to the foetus.
The result of this is that abortion is illegal in almost every circumstance apart from direct risk to the pregnant woman’s life. That means no abortion for victims of rape and incest. It means no abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. No abortion for women whose health will be compromised by pregnancy as long as it won’t actually kill them. No abortion for women in violent or abusive relationships. No abortion for women who can’t afford to care for a child. No abortion for any woman unless it’s so she can be kept alive to fulfil the state’s ultimate expectation that she become a “mother”.
The atmosphere is one of fear. We know the names of some of the women who have suffered the worst of this brutalising system: Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicemia and E.coli after doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy she was miscarrying; Miss Y, a migrant who was compelled to continue a pregnancy resulting from rape, force-fed while on hunger strike and then subjected to a court-ordered C-section. But there are also all the other, unnamed women: the women who travel to England for abortions with the help of Abortion Support Network, and the ones who don’t appear in ASN’s figures at all because they pay their own way and make their own arrangements, making the lonely passage to be get the treatment that should be their right.
And then there are the ones who never make the trip at all. Not only is abortion restricted in Ireland, but even information about abortion is tightly constrained thanks to the Regulation of Information Act, which makes it an offence for doctors and counsellors to give complete information on accessing terminations. Mara Clarke, founder of ASN, explains that this creates an atmosphere of paranoia around pregnancy for both women and professionals: “In our experience, many women are too afraid to tell a practitioner that they are pregnant, and many more have had experience of being obstructed by clinicians… We do not know if the lack of informed care was because clinicians were afraid of repercussions or if they were against abortion – but either way it is no way for medical professionals to behave towards patients in distress.”
One thin sea stands between possibility and life for women, and helplessness and fear; between being approximately a person in the eyes of the law, and being a container. The abuse of Irish women must go on no longer. The Eighth Amendment must be repealed, and women in Northern Ireland must be given the same rights as every other woman in the UK. The right to abortion is a human right, and until women in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are afforded both that right and the means to exercise it, it is clear that their governments see them as something less than human.