Report Calls for Reappraisal of Northern Irish Attitudes to
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
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
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.