By Sinead Sweeney

This month the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) launched a free 24-hour telephone helpline for women who have taken abortion pills purchased from websites such as Women on the Web (WOW) and Women Help Women (WHW). The helpline is open to those resident in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man, where the taking of such pills is illegal.

Through the helpline, women can speak to an experienced and qualified nurse who can provide advice and reassurance about any symptoms or concerns they might have and who can refer women to hospital, in the rare instance that they require urgent medical attention.

This telephone aftercare service is already available to women who receive treatment at BPAS clinics. BPAS made the decision to extend the service due to fears that, given the potential criminal implications, many women delay or entirely avoid seeking vital medical care in the aforementioned jurisdictions. This can be detrimental to both their mental and physical health and so the helpline is designed to act as a confidential aftercare service for women too afraid to access the necessary services.

This is a much needed service in Northern Ireland where abortion is illegal and many women choose the online purchase of abortifacient drugs. Rates of home use of abortion drugs are steadily increasing and many women have come forward to declare that they have used these pills or have procured them for others. It has also been suggested that the recent decline in the number of Northern Irish women travelling to abortion clinics in Great Britain is indicative of a greater proportion of women using these pills.

Unsurprisingly the BPAS helpline has sparked a great deal of controversy amongst the pro-life lobby in Northern Ireland. Life NI, amongst others, has labelled it a ‘publicity stunt’ by BPAS, maintaining that setting up a helpline for these women encourages both abortion and law-breaking. In actuality, it is offering an aftercare service to which women in Northern Ireland are already legally entitled. As stated in the Department of Health and Social Services and Public Safety’s 2016 guidelines;

“Aftercare services should be available to any woman who presents with symptoms or     complications following a termination of pregnancy, regardless of where it was carried     out, so that she has access to appropriate treatment and counselling where required.”

This serves to highlight the reality that in Northern Ireland, much of the abortion debate is remarkably misinformed. Few are aware that circumstances exist in which abortion is legal and even less are aware of the help and advice healthcare professionals can and should give to women. The lack of frank and open discussion propagates the misinformation and misunderstanding and results in stilted public discussion of this important issue.

The majority of women are unable to access abortion services in Northern Ireland. Instead they are forced to seek alternative means, primarily by travelling to clinics in the rest of the UK. According to Northern Ireland abortion statistics for 2014/15 only 16 terminations of pregnancy were performed legally in Northern Ireland. During the same period 837 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England to access care.

While travelling to Great Britain is both safe and legal it occurs entirely at a woman’s own expense. This includes not only travel and accommodation costs but also the procedure itself. Total costs can be as much as £2000; a substantial amount particularly in light of the fact that in Northern Ireland approximately 20% of the population live in relative deprivation. Thus for those unable to afford an abortion in England, their only choices are to enter into an unwilling motherhood or to obtain illegal abortion pills.

The use of illegal abortion pills is a cheaper and more accessible means of accessing abortion care. However, this leaves women vulnerable to the risk of criminal prosecution and potentially without appropriate aftercare. Although abortion pills are relatively safe when supplied by organisations such as WOW and WHW, who carry out online or tele consultations, it is by no means the ideal given women’s reluctance to seek medical attention due to fears of stigma, judgment and prosecution. Such fears proved to be well-founded given the prosecution of a 21-year-old woman in April this year, for the procurement and administration of abortion pills, a charge for which she received a 3 month suspended prison sentence.

Given all of this, contrary to many pro-life organisation’s claims, I believe the BPAS helpline is a welcome development in tackling just one of the facets of the abortion dilemma in Northern Ireland. Northern Irish society has for too long been in denial of the problems created by its abortion law, particularly with regards to the use of illegal abortion pills. That said, this is beginning to change and the issue has received a great deal more attention in recent months. With the establishment of this helpline, BPAS has helped to further this debate by highlighting the reality of illegal abortion pill usage.

The helpline is no more encouraging abortion than an addiction helpline encourages illicit drug abuse. Instead it is providing a safety net to ensure that Northern Irish women receive the same essential medical care as every other woman living in the UK; ensuring that the health of women is not forgotten in society’s bid to retain some paradoxical sense of morality. Yet it is a temporary solution to a deep-rooted problem. For a true resolution, Northern Irish policy makers need to take responsibility for the failures of current abortion law and for the health and wellbeing of its female citizens. In order to do so, Stormont must move beyond inertia, stigma, and moral judgment.

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