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Sunday 22 April 2018

'We're like a specialised travel agency,' says woman who helps women travel to UK for abortion

Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network in Dublin
Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network in Dublin
‘I was glad I could get back to my life’ (photo posed)

Meadhbh McGrath

With only a Leaving Certificate to her name, 19-year-old Ann Rossiter left the small village of Bruree, Co Limerick in 1961 and headed to London in search of work. Not long after arriving, Ann became pregnant.

She spent months searching for an abortionist in London and eventually found a nightclub owner who recommended someone. After several botched attempts, the woman completed the abortion in a dingy basement. Later that night, Ann was rushed to hospital with a massive haemorrhage.

"I had no idea about contraception," she told the Irish Independent.

Following her experience, Ann became a pro-choice campaigner and in her book, 'Ireland's Hidden Diaspora', Ann describes feeling that her parents and the nuns who had taught her had let her down.

Now aged 72, she works with various women's groups in London, including the Abortion Support Network (ASN), which offer financial assistance and accommodation to women travelling from Ireland to access abortions in the UK.

ASN was founded in London in 2009 by Mara Clarke, who described the organisation as being like a highly specialised travel agency.

"Depending on how far along you are, an abortion costs between €550 and €2,700 for the procedure and flights," said Ms Clarke, who is attending a pro-choice rally in Dublin today.

ASN works with everyone, from students who want to continue their education to women pregnant as a result of rape, to couples whose pregnancy became untenable to refugees.

It has also assisted a handful of transgender and gender-variant people.

Their clients range in age from 13 to 51, but the majority are in their mid-twenties. Most have children already and many of them are in relationships.

"We've been very fortunate, we haven't had to turn people away due to lack of funding since 2012. But there are people we are not able to help - they can't get visas in time, they can't escape their abusive partners or they can't find somebody to watch their kids."

Latest figures from the UK's Department of Health reveal that more than 3,700 women and girls from Ireland sought an abortion in the UK last year.

To date, ASN has helped more than 1,200 people from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the number continues to rise year on year. In 2014, it gave grants to 552 women. This year, it has already helped almost 500.

One of the women it provided a grant to (they range between £20 and £1,200) was Cathy, a woman in her early thirties who has had two abortions.

She first became pregnant when she was working in Scotland, where she was able to obtain an abortion for free through the NHS.

In 2013, Cathy was living in Dublin, and discovered that she was pregnant again.

"I didn't want to ask my boss, 'Can I have a long weekend so I can have an abortion?' So I said it was to go on holidays in Liverpool. I ended up getting all these tourist guides and telling everybody, 'We went to see this and we went to see that!'"

Her abortion cost almost €2,000. ASN covered 10pc of the cost, as well as giving practical advice, like waiting longer to keep costs down.

"Having an abortion is a big decision, but once you've decided, you just want to get it over with as soon as you can.

"Here in Ireland, you can't do that. You have to wait for weeks - it's like someone's pressed the pause button," she said.

"Both times, relief was what I felt afterwards, not regret. I know I'm not a murderer. I was just glad I could get back to my life."

The experience of travelling to an unfamiliar place to obtain an abortion can be very daunting. When the morning-after pill failed and she became pregnant at 19, Aisling Abbey (24) went to London.

"I felt like my country was telling me, 'We will make the decision for you or you can leave.' Being in that position was so isolating and scary.

"While I was in London, everything about the ordeal was heightened by the fact I was in a hotel bathroom and not my safe, familiar home.

"I had to stop myself from thinking about how far away from home I was. It was so hard to keep it together."

Most women can fly home on the same day. However, those who are further along in pregnancy, or who are travelling on the ferry or from rural areas, may need to stay overnight and ASN gives them a place to stay.

Katherine Dunne, a research scientist, has volunteered as a host for two years. After working with pro-choice organisations while living in Dublin, Ms Dunne knew she wanted to get involved with ASN when she returned home to London.

Ms Dunne meets women the night before their procedure at the rail station or picks them up at the clinic after work. She takes them home, offers some warm comfort food and they usually watch a film together.

"My rule is that I don't ask any questions and if they want to talk about it, they'll open up," she said. "They're just grateful to have somewhere to stay."

Irish Independent

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