This week, Marie Stopes clinics across the UK were forced to announce that they cannot accept any more Irish clients for abortion procedures until further notice, instead prioritising NHS referrals. Far from being a snub against Irish and Northern Irish women, it is an emergency measure, taken at a traditionally busy time of the year, which is trying to manage a service which is drowning in demand.
It bears repeating that abortion is illegal under almost all circumstances in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Pregnant people make the expensive, exhausting, and demanding trip to the UK to access abortions that they need every day, only to be denied the same access at home. As the NHS here in Northern Ireland will not refer patients from NI to the UK, patients need to fund the procedure and travel themselves, which frequently runs costs of thousands of pounds. Of course, many do not have that kind of cash to hand, which – as well as adding a further layer of discrimination against poorer women – sometimes means that patients have to wait until their pregnancy is approaching the second trimester before they are in a position to access abortion. This news from Marie Stopes is especially bad news under these circumstances, as the private clinics to which MSI will refer Irish women will already be coping with a backlog of British women needing their services, but may also carry additional costs for the procedure and for travel.
So it is against this grim background that Marie Stopes made their announcement, and so it is understandable that it caused some consternation and perhaps even some panic. We cannot fault the decision, however. These clinics are designed first to serve the local communities which need their services, that they accommodate so many pregnant people from this island, often at a reduced cost, is something for which we should be grateful. That is exactly where our gratitude should end, however, and where we should get angry.
We ought to be angry at our governments, both in Stormont and Dáil Éireann, who continue to avoid tackling the issue, or actively trying to confound attempts to liberalise the law by so much as an inch. We should be enraged by their talk of valuing life in the knowledge that abortions are happening regardless of the law, but somehow the law means their hands are clean. We should balk at anti-choice groups in our children’s schools, spreading their fear and shame. We should be angry that Westminster deliberately ignores what is going on in Northern Ireland, preferring a quiet life to the human rights of pregnant people. While we’re at it, we should be unimpressed by the 1967 Act, which still does not decriminalise abortion, merely allowing for “exceptions” – it is this bizarre situation which coerces women to use Marie Stopes clinics, even for early abortions, which they could safely induce at home if the law did not prohibit it. Without the prohibitions of the 1967 Act, there would be no backlog and this temporary state of affairs would be unnecessary.
We should use this anger, too. Join the Strike for Choice on March 8th, and insist the government in the Republic of Ireland call a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment; take a day off work, wear black in solidarity (or a black armband if you are obliged to wear a uniform) and refrain from domestic labour. Get involved with Alliance for Choice and support the campaign to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. Donate to Abortion Support Network, Women Help Women or Women on Web if you can afford to, and make sure that your friends know that these organisations can help them access the safe but illegal pills should you need them, and that BPAS can provide aftercare. Let them know, also, that the Netherlands and Belgium also provide safe services to people in crisis pregnancy from this island, and organisations here that can put them in touch with those clinics. Lend your voice, time and energy wherever you can when abortion hits the headlines, come to marches and protests and get involved. Make sure you know where your candidates for election stand, and make sure they know where you stand too. We need as much momentum as we can get. They cannot ignore us forever.