By Leela Jacinto
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Ireland's restrictive abortion ban causes thousands of women every year to "make the journey" abroad. Today's general elections are not expected to slow that migration after politicians largely avoided the incendiary topic.
DUBLIN, Ireland (WOMENSENEWS)--On a bright but blustery summer morning barely four years ago, Rhonda K. "made the journey" from the southeastern Irish port of Dun Laoghaire to the English coast.
For centuries, Irish emigrants have followed the old sea route to England, fleeing their poverty-stricken land for a country that has, for the most part, politically repelled yet economically attracted them.
But the Celtic Tiger has been roaring for a decade now. Every week brings planeloads of European delegations eager to learn the secrets of the Irish economic miracle. Ireland's per capita annual income of $43,600 is second only to Luxembourg in the European Union.
The migrant trail has dramatically reversed, with more than 200,000 foreign workers arriving in Ireland since 2004.
Yet, thousands of Irish women each year continue to move in the opposite direction and leave the country, if only for a few days, under their own form of duress.
In this western extremity of Europe, it's referred to simply as "making the journey," a euphemism for the daily, desperate exits of women seeking abortions abroad.
Ireland has one of the world's strictest anti-abortion laws with a ban on abortion written into the national constitution. Terminations are only permitted if there is a substantial risk to the woman's life. Destroying or aiding the destruction of the unborn carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Irish law does, however, guarantee a woman's right to travel abroad for abortions. And every year, an estimated 7,000 women living in Ireland exercise that right.
While Britain is the traditional destination, an increasing number are traveling to the Netherlands, Spain and other East European countries where health services are more affordable, according to the Dublin-based Irish Family Planning Association.
The law has generated a decades-long and acrimonious debate, but reproductive rights advocates expect little to be changed by today's general elections after politicians of nearly all parties largely ignored the incendiary issue during the campaigns.
"Abortion is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about," says Gabrielle Malone, program director of Marie Stopes Reproductive Choices, a Dublin family planning center. "It's not an election issue and it will be another five years (until the next election) before anyone will touch it."
"I've always felt left out of the political process," says Rhonda K., a 38-year-old trade union official who found herself swept up by the abortion wave. "I don't believe the politicians are acting in my best interests."
With more than a decade of gender and labor activism behind her, Rhonda K., a Dublin single woman who declined to provide her surname to protect her identity, was taking medication for an injury in 2003, which she believes interfered with her oral contraception. Her pregnancy took her by complete surprise.
"I nearly had a heart attack," she says recalling her first self-administered pregnancy test. "I looked at the stick and took it out of the bin half an hour later to check if I was seeing things and took it out again. And again. Then I thought long and hard about the situation I was in."
Women in this traditionally Catholic country often feel compelled to keep their abortions secret from families, friends and employers. Many invent cover stories while struggling to muster the nearly $2,000 it can cost to travel and pay for the procedure abroad.
Rhonda managed the journey; others don't.
Earlier this month, an Irish teen in state care went to court after the girl's legal guardian--the state health service--issued an order stopping her from going to Britain to abort her fatally brain-damaged fetus.
The 17-year-old woman--identified only as Miss D--won the case when the judge upheld her right to travel.
The verdict was condemned by anti-choice groups who argue that every unborn child--even those with physical or mental disabilities--is entitled to protection. "I am disappointed with the verdict. I'm disappointed for any woman in her situation who feels she has to have an abortion," says Audrey Dillon, a general practitioner and spokesperson for the Dublin-based Pro-Life Campaign.
While welcoming the verdict, pro-choice groups expressed disappointment that the fundamental problem of illegal abortion had not been addressed. "It's the great hypocrisy of abortion in Ireland," says Mary O'Flynn, spokesperson for Choice Ireland, a Dublin-based pro-choice group. "It's what we call 'an Irish solution to an Irish problem.' As long as it doesn't happen in our back garden, we're happy to export the problem to England."
The "Irish solution," however, also appears to affect immigrant women who are in the country and in the politically vulnerable situation of seeking asylum.
Since 2000, 108 out of a total of 35,000 asylum seekers have been granted special travel documents or re-entry visas on humanitarian grounds to access an abortion abroad, according to an e-mailed response from the Department of Justice.
Irish police in recent years have recorded a handful of alleged backstreet abortions primarily in the Dublin region in some immigrant communities.
Police crime records for 2004 record four cases of suspected illegal abortions among foreign-born women "reported or known" to the police. Records also show that no charges were filed and no criminal proceedings were undertaken in any of the cases.
While Irish crime statistics for 2006 have not yet been released, local press reports last year recorded two suspected cases of illegal abortions, including a Chinese woman suspected of taking abortifacients mailed by a family member in China. No charges were filed following an inquest, in which the Dublin city coroner noted that he was unable to refute or confirm allegations that the pills in question were used to induce an abortion.
Records of coroner inquiries show most of the immigrants suspected of either undergoing or aiding illegal abortions had returned to their home countries by the time of the inquiries. When contacted, an Irish police spokesperson declined to provide details of specific investigations.
Observers say they aren't surprised that Irish authorities seem reluctant to turn the spotlight on the dark underbelly of women's restrictive reproductive rights in a country that is viewed as a model of European economic development.
"There would be a real reluctance against prosecuting these cases through criminal charges from legislators," says Ivana Bacik, professor of law at Trinity College Dublin. "At a political level, there is a tacit understanding that it would be unusual for these cases to be prosecuted."
Nearly four years after her abortion in a foreign land, Rhonda K. will be casting her vote today. But she's not sure the new government will be responsive to the country's changing needs.
"I managed to make the journey and I have no regrets about my decision," she says. "But I worry about the situation a lot of women--especially migrant women--find themselves in. I knew I wasn't the first person in this situation and I certainly wasn't the last."
Leela Jacinto is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs. She was an international news reporter at ABCNEWS.com, New York, and has taught journalism at the Pajhwok Afghan News Service in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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