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Ireland and abortion
  New Report Calls for Reappraisal of Northern Irish Attitudes to Abortion

Tony Kerridge, Tel: 0207 574 7353 / 07949 309564
Diana Thomas, Tel: 0207 574 7416
Claire Taylor, Tel: 0207 574 7429

30 October 2001

The results of a survey examining the abortion experiences of women from Northern Ireland was launched on 30 October at Stormont by reproductive health agency Marie Stopes International (MSI) on behalf of the Voice for Choice campaign.

The launch was sponsored by David Ervine, MLA, of the Progressive Unionist Party and Jane Morrice, MLA, of the Women's Coalition. Both parties support progressive reform of abortion provision in Northern lreland.

The other Irish journey calls for a radical reassessment of traditionally held views of NI abortion seekers. These women are often perceived to be severely traumatised by their experiences, haunted by moral guilt and irrationally obsessed by the fear of being 'found out'.The report concludes, however, that what distinguishes NI abortion seekers is largely the result of their being forced to travel to Britain to access services at great personal and financial cost because of an uncertain and discriminatory legal framework for abortion in Northern Ireland.

The report is an update of one carried out by MSI in 1994. It reveals that there has been little movement or change in responses to key questions posed during the intervening seven years, suggesting that the issue of abortion remains politically mired, despite unequivocal support for change from respondents to both surveys.

Over 150 women completed questionnaires (approximately 10% of the estimated 1500 NI women who travel annually to Britain to obtain abortions). Additional face to face interviews were carried out with 30 NI and 30 non-NI women using Marie Stopes's Ealing centre.

Key findings include:
  • 95% of respondents support the extension to Northern Ireland of the 1967 Abortion Act, which governs abortion provision in Great Britain;
  • 95% indicated that they would prefer to access their abortions in Northern Ireland;
  • Twenty eight out of 30 NI interviewees stated that, whilst awaiting progressive legislative change in Northern Ireland, they should be able to obtain NHS funded abortions in Britain;
  • More than half (55%) had discussed their abortion decision with others, primarily partners, friends and families, belying the 'secrecy' tag so often applied to Irish women. Non-NI women displayed similar consultation patterns;
  • 2 out of 3 (68%) NI women knew of others' abortions;
  • Almost half (44%) had had to borrow money to fund their abortions; and
  • Relatively few (34%) had consulted their GPs on their abortion decision.

"Raising money for the journey and the cost of a private abortion proved a major additional burden for many of the women we interviewed," said Ann Rossiter, co-author of the study with fellow Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign member Mary Sexton.

"Undoubtedly, many NI women who cannot scrape the money together are being forced to proceed with unwanted pregnancies against their will, with all the psychological and physical consequences that implies."

One person quoted in the report provides an insight into the extraordinary lengths some women are forced to go to:

"I have been travelling all day and night. The only available flight had seats for 276 each, which is impossible for myself and my mother. We had to get a ferry to Stranraer in Scotland. Then we had to get on the bus for 10 and a half hours. Getting into London at 6am, it was still dark and I had no sleep. I am dreading the return journey this evening."

The report's launch coincides with a legal challenge being taken by fpaNI (formerly known as the Family Planning Association). In a landmark ruling on 13 June, 2001, fpaNI won the right to the first Judicial Review of medical practices relating to abortion and the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland. A date is still to be set, but the Review is expected to take place before the end of the year.

The move was welcomed by Helen Axby, Deputy Chief Executive of MSI. "Clarification of Northern Ireland abortion provision is long overdue as the current arrangements are so confused as to be practically unworkable," said Ms Axby.

"Every day at its centres in Britain, MSI sees a steady stream of women who have surmounted considerable financial and practical obstacles to access a service that should be available closer to their own homes. They are being discriminated against in a way that is wholly unacceptable."

In addition to the obvious discrimination, Helen Axby pointed to concerns that the current arrangements are having a potentially negative impact on NI women's health as a further reason for seeking urgent change to the system.

Office of National Statistics figures show that in 1999, 42% of women from England and Wales accessed abortion services in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. In contrast, only 32% of NI women managed to access an abortion in this period, possibly due to the delays they encountered raising funds and making arrangements for their journeys. It is a well established medical fact that early access to abortion significantly reduces risks to women's health.

Among the report's recommendations are calls for:

  • Extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland pending more progressive legislation;
  • NHS funding of NI women's abortions at British centres as an interim step;
  • Sex education in NI schools to include clear guidelines on the choices available in unplanned pregnancies, including abortion; and
  • GP training, pre and post registration, on abortion law in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and training for support staff on the need for confidentiality, especially in GP surgeries.

Jane Morrice, MLA, welcomed the publication of The other Irish journey.

"The debate on this subject is a delicate one," said Ms Morrice. "However, it is important that we in Northern Ireland face up to the facts revealed in this report and act upon them in the best interests of the health and wellbeing of women in this society."

David Ervine, MLA, added: "It is a disgrace that in an alleged modern society such as the United Kingdom, women in this region are not being afforded equal citizenship".

"Whilst we have much to do in Northern Ireland, including removing the stigma surrounding abortion and creating an atmosphere conducive to rational debate, our counterparts at Westminster must ensure that women's health in Northern Ireland is given the same importance as it is in London or Liverpool. To this end, Westminster must extend the 1967 Act and provide NHS funding to NI women in the interim."

The report was launched on behalf of the national Voice for Choice campaign, which seeks changes to the outmoded 1967 Abortion Act and includes extension of any revised legislation to Northern Ireland amongst its aims.

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