Crossing borders - abortion journeys

Grace Davies
25 October 2007

The plight of the many women having to undertake long, distressing, often expensive journeys in order to gain access to safe abortion due to restrictive legislation in their home countries was the focus of discussion on day one of the conference.

Two key countries - Mexico and Ireland - were the subject of a breakout session on border crossings, but these journeys are a reality for women around the world, from Kenya to Poland. Often referred to as "abortion tourism", the term highlights one of the central characteristics of the phenomenon. In highly restrictive situations, class and socio-economic status play a huge role in whether or not a woman can access safe abortion. There is also great potential for exploitation of women seeking to terminate a pregnancy from pro-life "rogue counselling" services and those seeking financial profits.

Claudia Diaz Olavarrieta presented her findings on research into the number of Mexican women crossing the border to southern states of America for abortions. Her research was conducted before April's landmark ruling in Mexico City legalising abortion in the state, which she surmised would have had a big effect on her results. Mexican women travelling to the US were typically well educated and wealthy, did not cross the border illegally, and as such did not have to resort to unsafe clandestine or self-induced attempted abortions. Because of their background, they also typically came from wealthier Mexico City rather than poorer nothern and eastern states.

Closer to home, representatives from IFPA and the Safe and Legal Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland reported that 200 women per week travel to the UK from the Republic and Northern Ireland to have an abortion in the UK. Abortion remains illegal on the island on both sides of the border, where the penalty for helping a woman to obtain an abortion remains up to life imprisonment.

Again, economics plays a part - Irish women making the journey across the sea have to find on average £1000 to cover the trip, which is completed in secrecy and silence.

Goretti Horgan of Alliance for Choice Northern Ireland argued strongly and persuasively that, especially with regards to her jurisdiction, abortion remains a class issue. More than 50% of families in NI live on or below the poverty line, children in NI are more likely to be deprived or severely deprived than anywhere else in the UK, Belfast has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in any city in the UK, yet women in Northern Ireland do not have the same rights as women in the rest of the UK.

The Irish experience is documented in Melissa Thompson's excellent film Like A Ship In The Night, charting the experiences of three Irish women making the journey to the UK.

The unasked question in much of these discussions was what happens to the unnamed others, those who cannot find the money, or the help, to make these trips? The reality, repeated again and again throughout the two-day conference, is that the lack of access to safe abortion, as so often, hurts the young and the poor first and hardest. Abortion happens. And restricting access does not make it go away. The stories of women making difficult decisions and finding the means to travel for an abortion stand for the "voiceless" others around the world resorting to herbal remedies and unsafe "backstreet" abortions leading to thousands of preventable deaths worldwide each year.

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