How Brexit axed abortion access for Europe’s most marginalised
Post-Brexit immigration rules mean the UK has abandoned European citizens in dire need of basic healthcare
Last year, Alessia, 24, became pregnant. She’s from Malta, where abortion is banned, but she needed to end her pregnancy. She knew that you could order abortion pills online, but was terrified of the consequences of getting caught. Desperate, she discovered that she could travel to the UK to have a safe surgical abortion up to 24 weeks into her pregnancy, giving her time to save money and plan the trip.
But then she realised she needed a passport to travel to England, because of the new rules after Brexit. Malta is in the European Union, so Alessia was used to relying on freedom of movement to travel and had never needed one before. Also, a passport cost €70; an expedited one was double the price.
Eventually, Alessia contacted the Abortion Support Network (ASN), a UK-based charity that helps people access safe abortions. She managed to travel to Spain, where the legal limit is 14 weeks and the cost of the procedure is higher, to have a termination just in time.
Alessia is one of many European citizens whose access to abortion has been severely restricted by Britain’s exit from the European Union. On 1 October 2021, UK immigration rules changed: anyone visiting the UK from outside the Common Travel Area, even for the shortest time, is now required to have a passport.
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Before Brexit, thousands of pregnant people travelled from within the EU to clinics, primarily in London, Liverpool and Manchester, using national ID cards, to make use of the lengthy abortion time limit (24 weeks) in England, Wales and Scotland. Brexit changed this for good.
“The majority of our clients [in Poland] don’t have passports,” said Mara Clarke, founder and director of ASN, which supported more than 700 Polish women to end unwanted pregnancies between 2019 and 2021. It’s “impossible to get an expedited passport,” she added.
Clarke said the formal rule changes consolidated a clear pattern since 2016, the year of the UK’s referendum on Brexit: “Almost immediately after [the referendum] we noticed that it was almost impossible for us to get visas for people, no matter what the circumstances.” This has completely changed the way ASN works. “We send the majority of our clients to the Netherlands now,” she told me.
This is borne out by figures from the UK’s Department for Health and Social Care, which show an 80% reduction in “non-resident” abortions in England and Wales between 2016 and 2020 (Scotland’s figures are separate).
In 2016, 4,810 people travelled to England and Wales to have an abortion, followed by 4,633 in 2017 and 4,687 in 2018. In 2019, that number plummeted to 2,135 before collapsing to 943 in 2020 as a result of the added complications of Brexit and COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Irene Donadio from the European arm of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights, explained: “The new Brexit requirements to have a passport plus visas plus COVID testing act as increased barriers and costs for women in desperate need of abortion care.”
Mainland Britain and abortion
Why was mainland Britain previously such an important refuge for people in need of abortions?
Key factors are the relatively stringent time limits and uneven provision that exist across Europe. In France, the non-exceptional limit for abortion (where there is no risk to life or health and the pregnancy is not the result of rape) is 14 weeks. In Italy and Germany, it’s 12. Bans on abortion in Malta and Poland mean women are forced to travel abroad (at their own expense).
Provision in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, despite the much-celebrated legal changes, remains patchy at best, and the number of weeks into a pregnancy someone can have a surgical or medical abortion is only 12 weeks – assuming you can find a hospital to perform the operation.
For later abortions in particular, the British mainland was a crucial destination. For European migrants in Ireland, geographical proximity enabled the journey to be done in a day, saving on accommodation and childcare expenses. But the decision to no longer allow travel with EU identity cards has closed this window completely.
Poor and marginalised suffer most
Unsurprisingly, it is the poorest and most marginalised women who are most affected. Passports cost money, which immediately creates a financial barrier to access. Racism also plays a role, especially for those travelling from Ireland by ferry: ASN reports that racial profiling during ‘randomised’ immigration checks makes this journey feel particularly unsafe for people of colour.
Punitive border laws and punitive abortion laws are impacting the same group of people: the people who don’t have the money to buy their way through things
ASN’s Clarke concludes: “Punitive border laws and punitive abortion laws are impacting the same group of people: the people who don’t have the money to buy their way through things.” Donadio from IPPF agrees: “The fatal combination of anti-choice and anti-immigration policies might mean that poorer women, especially undocumented migrant women or asylum seekers, become double victims of these radical policies because their legal and economic status does not allow them to travel to access crucial care like abortion.”
For example, Irish citizens can still travel to the UK with an ID card on most airlines and ferries, but European migrants in Ireland must have a passport – even though they probably used an EU identity card to enter Ireland.
This leaves migrant women stranded without options if they experience an unwanted pregnancy while, for example, studying abroad – as in the case of another of ASN’s clients last year. Lisa (not her real name) got pregnant while she was studying in Ireland, but the baby was diagnosed with foetal abnormalities in the 13th week.
Despite her best efforts, she could not get two doctors to certify the baby’s condition (as required by law) and permit an abortion. The hospital advised her to travel to mainland Britain instead, but she only had her Irish residency ID and no passport. Lisa did not get the necessary documents and had to continue with the pregnancy.
This is the terrible consequence of what Clarke calls “state-sanctioned medical negligence” when it comes to the post-Brexit maelstrom of anti-choice and anti-immigration policies. The growing anti-choice movement in Europe is coinciding with the rise of what Donadio describes as “ultra-nationalist […] authoritarian governments that are xenophobic and anti-migrant”, including in the UK.
When asked what needs to change, both Clarke and Donadio sounded resigned to the current situation. “I spend all my time trying to decrease the obstacles between people who need abortions and the abortions,” says Clarke. She describes the UK’s provision of abortion as “when it is good, it is very good and when it is bad, it is horrid. And it is horrid for the people who are already marginalised or at risk or poor.”
Leaving the EU has seen the UK – formerly a relative champion of reproductive justice – abandon European citizens in dire need of basic healthcare. Experts such as ASN and IPPF think that rates of non-resident abortions in the UK will never recover from COVID-19 travel restrictions as a result of the Tory government’s stringent post-Brexit rules.
For women and pregnant people like Alessia and Lisa, living in places that actively suppress their rights to their own bodies, Brexit has created yet another obstacle to justice and security.
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