Abortion in Europe – is it really accessible?

female doctor dressed in medical gear
ellen mcveigh

15th July 2021

On 9th June, an open letter calling for the removal of all legal barriers to abortion access from the charity SheDecides was signed by 29 politicians, healthcare and women’s rights activists. The signatories included Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander de Croo, gender and equality ministers from France, Canada and Norway, and international development ministers from Sweden and the Netherlands. The letter called for a push to secure abortion access around the world as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affect women. “Lockdowns and pressures on health services have made it more challenging for women and girls to access essential healthcare services such as contraception, resulting in increased pregnancies and reduced access to abortion – even in countries where the procedure is safe and legal”, the letter stated. As access to abortion service is now superficially available across the island of Ireland, how do these issues play out a bit closer to home?


The letter highlighted the fact that even once abortion has been made legal, this does not always translate to it becoming freely accessible. Even when abortion appears accessible on a surface level, unnecessary obstacles can force people into a situation in which abortion is no longer an option. This includes mandatory counselling and waiting periods, lack of access to information and to telemedicine. The letter highlights the added barrier in many countries of anti-choice protestors who harass people seeking abortion services and the fact that many anti-choice groups are also powerful political lobbyists. As well as these more concrete barriers, many people seeking abortions also face huge stigma and discrimination, often exacerbated by ‘chilling effects’ caused by legal obstacles or by lack of accurate information. This idea of stigma and discrimination highlights the core of the SheDecides movement, which is that everyone should have the ability to make their own decisions about their body, and be empowered in these choices. The letter concludes with this statement: “we need a global campaign of factual and unbiased information so women and girls know their rights and have access to accurate information about their healthcare options”.


Despite the celebration this May of 3 years since we voted to repeal the 8th Amendment, people are still being forced to travel across the Irish Sea to access services that should be available at home.”

Pregnant people in Ireland know that this is the case. Despite the celebration this May of 3 years since we voted to repeal the 8th Amendment, people are still being forced to travel across the Irish Sea to access services that should be available at home. The Irish Times reported that in 2019 when abortion services became available in Ireland, 375 people travelled to the UK for an abortion. In 2021, even while a global pandemic made travel incredibly difficult, people have been forced to make this terrible journey. Claire Cullen Delsol of Terminations for Medical Reason Ireland (TFMR) told The Irish Times in May 2021 that “we have come across at least 30 people who have been forced to travel during the pandemic. They have to show that letter to strangers, who scrutinise it, asking if their reason for travelling is really essential. There have been women turned away who have had to reschedule and turn back”. Just as the SheDecides letter describes, the travel restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded the stigma and shame associated with travelling for an abortion, and added extra barriers to the access to abortion in Ireland.


In 2021, the promises of accessible abortion in Ireland have still not been fulfilled, and the pandemic has simply highlighted these inequities. The continued criminalisation of medical professionals who provide abortions creates a chilling effect on people who require a termination after 12 weeks, with the majority of those affected being people whose babies have been diagnosed with a severe foetal anomaly. TFMR are calling for the decriminalisation of abortion for medical practitioners, who they suspect are avoiding diagnosing these foetal anomalies for fear of reprisals in this grey legal area. Those who require abortions after the first 12 weeks are subjected to very strict grounds. While many of these are those requiring terminations for medical reasons, these regulations also affect those already most disadvantaged in society already. This could include those with poor access to healthcare, those unable to travel to their nearest abortion provider, younger people, often the very vulnerable people who the repeal campaign had aimed to protect. Geographical access is also spotty, with many maternity units still failing to provide abortion services. In the whole of Sligo, there are no GPs that offer abortion services.


According to a recent report sponsored by the Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organisation (WHO), “there is an uneven or incomplete geographic coverage of abortion services both in the community and in hospitals, particularly in rural regions and in the west and north of Ireland.” The issue is exacerbated by the current mandatory 3-day waiting period, which for those who find it difficult to travel to access these services, or who did not realise they were pregnant until 10 or 11 weeks, this can sometimes push people over the 12-week limit.


North of the border, similar issues persist. Despite abortion services in Northern Ireland being available for just over a year, the lack of an effective strategy from the Department of Health has led to an uneven spread of services across the country. As separate health and social care trusts in NI are currently being forced to regulate their own abortion services, the South Eastern Trust were forced to withdraw these services due to lack of funding. As local abortion services are unavailable for a large proportion of people in Northern Ireland, pressure is being put on health minister Robin Swann to commission abortion services across all HSC trusts.


The possibility of accessible abortion services across Ireland was won by years of hard work and passion by grassroots activists, as well as the swathes of people who were forced to tell their difficult personal stories. As we begin to lift out of the pandemic, we cannot ignore the inequalities which this year has made so clear, and we cannot let another year go by without accessible abortion in Ireland.



Featured photo by JESHOOTS

This article was supported by: STAND Women Editor Ellen + Programme Assistant Alex


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