abortion support network to help irish women: interview and help wanted

I've blogged several times about the Haven Coalition, the abortion-access network I belonged to in New York City (founded by a Canadian!). My most recent post about Haven is here.

The seeds of Haven continue to germinate, this time across the Atlantic. My friend Mara Clarke, a former Haven volunteer and coordinator who now lives in London, has formed the Abortion Support Network to assist Irish women who must travel to England in order to terminate a pregnancy.

It takes an amazing about of drive, tenacity, and commitment, not to mention truckloads of organizational skills, to create an organization like this on one's own. Mara deserves more congratulations and thanks for creating ASN than I can express.

Here's a little side note that is so very gratifying to me personally. Another friend of mine, R, has also relocated to London. R and I originally met doing pro-choice activism in Brooklyn, now more than 20 years ago. I introduced Mara and R by email... and R is now an ASN volunteer host!

An organization like ASN is a shining example of "the personal is political," and of living out one's beliefs through action. I interviewed Mara about ASN; here's what she had to say.

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LK: What made you decide to start the Abortion Support Network? Was there an "ah-ha" moment?

MC: I had been living in London for a few years, and was drifting professionally. Last Christmas I was having drinks with a friend that I'd met while volunteering for a pro-choice campaigning organisation and she said to me, "Mara, you need to do what you're passionate about. And you're passionate about abortion." I'm not sure if I'd have put it quite that way, but it's true that the most meaningful work I'd done to date was with Haven Coalition in New York (which you've written about previously).

I've never been an impassioned campaigner, but something about the simplicity of practical support appeals to me. Here is a woman who needs help. Let's help her. It's a way to make an actual difference in the lives of women who are caught in the crosshairs of an emotional political battle over abortion rights.

LK: What is the law regarding abortion in Ireland currently?

MC: In the Republic of Ireland, abortion is illegal except to save a woman's life or where there is a real and substantial risk of suicide.

I am angry at any country that criminalises abortion, but I am outraged at the situation in Northern Ireland. Despite being a part of the United Kingdom (which legalised abortion in 1967), abortion is illegal except to preserve a woman's life or in circumstances of extreme risk to mental or physical health.

Also, in 1990 it became legal for organisations in the Republic of Ireland to give women information about family planning and to have pre- and post-abortion counselling but not to make referrals. (As far as I know there hasn't been any restriction on giving information in Northern Ireland in recent history). And of course the majority of organisations in Ireland advertising "abortion services" or "crisis pregnancies" are anti-abortion agencies, many of which are heavily subsidised by conservative churches and other religious institutions.

LK: What will the Abortion Support Network do?

MC: Currently we are a network of London based volunteers who provide housing to women living in Ireland who need a place to stay the night before, during or after an abortion. We hope to expand to other areas of England where women are travelling – Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool – wherever we can find and train up a network of volunteers. Hosts are responsible for meeting a woman (and her partner, family member or friend if she brings one) at the clinic or at an agreed upon location between the airport and the host’s home, feeding her dinner, and ensuring she gets to the clinic or to the airport in the morning.

But the majority of the women who come to England don't need an overnight stay as they can take an early flight, have counselling and the procedure (if they haven't already had counselling via phone or at a local family planning organisation), and fly back early the same evening.

What these women really need is money. Travel and procedure costs that can run from £400 to £1500 or more (I've seen numbers as high as £4,000) depending on how pregnant they are, which is a prohibitive amount of money to many women. Even if women can save a bit on costs by going to a clinic outside of London, or stay overnight with one of our hosts and save with a cheaper overnight flight, the procedure is still quite expensive.

The Abortion Support Network has just begun fundraising. Our goal is to give grants to help women offset the costs of transport and procedure by December 2009.

LK: How will Irish women in need find out about ASN?

MC: While in the process of getting up and running, I did a lot of outreach to organisations in the UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland that serve these women, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), Marie Stopes, Marie Stopes Reproductive Choices in Dublin, the Family Planning Association (FPA) in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, as well as to Voice for Choice (a coalition of pro-choice organisations and abortion providers) and campaigning organisations such as Abortion Rights, Alliance for Choice and the Make it Safe, Keep it Legal campaign.

I've also been to Dublin for a reproductive justice conference and there met a number of people involved in more grassroots activism. We are also about to outreach to a number of women's organisations in Ireland and Irish organisations based in England. I can state with absolute certainty that we will have no trouble dispersing any money we raise. The reality is that many more women will approach us than we will be able to help.

LK: Are there any other groups helping abortion seekers from Ireland?

MC: Yes and no. There are the family planning agencies that can provide counselling and a number of organisations campaigning for law reform. I have heard anecdotally that a few of these organisations, as well as women's centres, have been known to find funds for abortion seekers when approached, but have not been able to find any organisation officially providing funds to women travelling from Ireland for abortions.

There used to be a group called the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group (IWASG) that provided housing and enormous amounts of funding. Their work, along with a political and social history of Ireland, abortion, sexual politics, and activism, is documented in a book called Ireland's Hidden Diaspora: the 'abortion trail' and the making of a London-Irish underground, 1980-2000.

Ann Rossiter, the author of the book, has been an invaluable resource and sounding board in setting up ASN, including spreading the word to the activists she knows in England, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The group disbanded in 2000, largely due to a combination of the internet, newly established low-cost airlines, and the removal of the requirement that women stay overnight after having an abortion. However, women are still coming, and even before the global recession I am sure the need, which perhaps lessened in 2000, is still in evidence.

LK: Is there evidence that Irish women now travel abroad to obtain abortions? Do women obtain illegal abortions, that you know of?

MC: Yes. According to the Department of Health, in 2007 there were at least 1,343 women from Northern Ireland and at least 4,696 from the Republic who gave an Irish address at an abortion clinic in the UK. This does not include the women who travel to places like the Netherlands and Brussels, where abortions can be less expensive, or women who give false addresses. Since the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act, more than 150,000 Irish women have come to the UK to have an abortion. Pro-choice campaigners believe these numbers under-representative of the actual number of women travelling. It's also important to note that since 1967, at least five women from Northern Ireland have died from unsafe abortion practices whereas in Britain there have been none.

Women are absolutely seeking and obtaining illegal abortions. They are buying the Early Medical Abortion pill (RU486, which works up to 9 weeks into a pregnancy) from websites (some more reputable than others). I have heard anecdotes about the same kinds of "DIY abortions" that used to take place in the bad old days – taking poison, drinking to excess, falling down flights of stairs. While I have not heard specifically about illegal abortion providers – back alley or otherwise – I don't doubt that they exist.

Also, for many women, given the secrecy many of them have to shroud their abortion in, raising money is a huge issue. I've been told that some women are forced to go to corrupt money lenders to get the necessary funds to travel to England or elsewhere.

LK: Is there a political movement to legalize abortion in Ireland?

MC: Yes. There are several organisations campaigning for law reform, including The Safe and Legal (in Ireland) campaign, Abortion Rights, Alliance for Choice, and the fpa's Time for Change campaign.

There have also been a few high profile legal cases about abortion, including the A, B and C case currently before the European Court. And recently Martin Salter, MP and Diane Abbot, MP have both brought forward Early Day Motions to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. [Some links here and here.] However, with devolution looming in Northern Ireland and the stranglehold of the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland, I'm not sure how much hope for success there is.

LK: Are there indications that attitudes are changing?

MC: I am not an expert on Irish attitudes but I have witnessed a few interesting things that, according to people who have been involved in this issue for decades, are showing a shift. First of all, when Ann Rossiter launched her book in Ireland last spring, there was an event held at a Waterstone's bookstore in Dublin. That might not seem like a big deal – but the fact that a large, well known bookstore (akin to a Barnes & Noble in NYC, not sure of the Canadian equivalent) [L: Chapters] hosted this event in the middle of the city is pretty incredible.

It shows that abortion might be – at least a little bit – escaping from where it's been swept under the rug in Ireland. Incredibly, the book was chosen as the Book of the Day by the Irish Times. Neither of these things would have happened 20 or even 10 years ago. Also, I recently went to a Reproductive Justice conference hosted by the ifpa. It was quite well attended by a broad-aged spectrum of activists and feminists, which bodes well for the movement.

LK: What are the obstacles and challenges to creating a network of this kind? I know it's a long list!

MC: I could type in my to-do list but it would be longer than the rest of the answers put together! There are the usual obstacles – finding volunteers, outreaching to referring agencies, meeting people, registering domains, finding the time to write web copy, figuring out the right timing and strategy for fundraising and media outreach. But there are additional challenges as well. I'm neither British nor Irish, and have limited knowledge of British/Irish feminist/abortion history. I'm just someone who thinks it's disgusting that women have to travel to get abortions and want to help make the process more humane and easier to accomplish, and this has caused a few raised eyebrows. Unlike the US, where the National Network of Abortion Funds has more than 104 abortion funds and practical support networks (full disclosure – ASN is one of NNAF's three international funds), with the exception of IWASG there is less of a history of this kind of work here.

My favourite obstacle so far has been that when registering ASN as a company limited by guarantee (the easiest thing for an organisation to become, and a placeholder until we become a charity or non profit), I had to get approval from the Secretary of State to use "abortion" in the company name. There have been other administrative difficulties as well – many of which are caused by my ignorance as a non-native.

However, ASN is made up of an amazing group of volunteers. I have the help and support of a number of people who are passionate about this issue and the willingness to help with fundraising, PR and other organisational needs in addition to hosting. I've also had great response from clinics, family planning organisations and women's groups, and have also been able to get guidance and assistance from organisations like NNAF in the US and the Women's Resource Centre in London.

LK: Is there an active anti-choice movement in the UK? Do you fear disruptive opposition, or even violence?

MC: Yes, there is. In addition to rogue "Crisis Pregnancy Centres" where women are led to believe they will be given information on all of their choices but are instead fed misinformation about abortion and pressured to continue with their pregnancies or look into adoption, there are several active and vocal anti-choice organisations and MPs. While there is not the same level of virulence and violence that I saw and experienced in the US (yes, even in New York City), there is still cause for concern over having our home address published on websites, or having an organisation start a letter writing campaign against us as individuals. On the upside, I live in a part of London that is like a small village. I know most of my neighbours and none of them would take kindly to any protesters who decided to camp outside my flat.

LK: What do you need most right now? How can people help?

MC: Money. The Abortion Support Network is run by unpaid volunteers and our only overheads are phone bills, the domain registration (and defensive registrations), travel to meet referring agencies, the cost of becoming a business and ultimately a charity. But these costs are relatively small, and I am currently covering them personally. Unless a donor specifically asks for money to go towards operating costs, any monies donated to ASN will go directly to a woman to help pay for her travel and her abortion. If we can get 200 people to donate £5 per month, it will enable us to make £100 grants to 10 women each month. That might not seem like much, but that's 10 more women than are currently receiving financial assistance. Also, our plan is to evaluate individual cases. If there is a woman in dire straits, we will do everything we can to help her. Anyone interested in donating should go to www.abortionsupport.org.uk/donate to set up a standing order or to make a donation using PayPal. No gift is too big or too small!

There are non-monetary ways people can help as well. Bloggers and other people with a web presence can link to us at www.abortionsupport.org.uk, or forward this blog post to people who might be interested in donating or supporting us in other ways. People can email me at info-at-abortionsupport.org.uk and ask to be put on our mailing list or join our Facebook Group by going to:


or by searching for "Abortion Support Network" on Facebook. Those who live in London can contact us about hosting, and we are also seeking volunteers able to help with accounting, admin, fundraising, legal advice, and PR/marketing/social media.

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