Maura’s story - Abortion and the referendum in Ireland

Maura Leahy
Director of Counselling, IFPA

I have been the IFPA Director of Counselling in Crisis Pregnancy since May 2017. For 25 years I have worked with children in care, early school leavers, and women at risk of crisis pregnancy. The IFPA counsellors have been counselling women in crisis pregnancy for decades.

Until now in Ireland we had to work within the context of the Information Act which meant we could talk to women about accessing abortion services outside of Ireland, but only if we also talked to them about parenting and adoption even if they had already decided to terminate. Regardless of the circumstances we still had to outline to them that there were three options or risk falling foul of the law. The Information Act was a layer of bureaucracy but with a menacing kind of tone.

There were many times when you were counselling women just thinking ‘oh this is ridiculous’ because this might be a serious case of fetal abnormality, it’s clear this woman isn't going to have this child, or have it adopted. Why do I have to say this? I'm not helping her by being forced to say this. There was a sense of the absurd.

Women were often fearful. They knew there is something illegal about abortion or they weren't sure if it was okay to talk about it. Some women also had experience of rogue agencies where they thought they were speaking to a counsellor, but they were tricked by a pro-life group trying to influence their decision and prevent them accessing abortion services. These rogue clinics had different tactics like setting an appointment for next week and then ringing and postponing, to create time delays in terms of women accessing services. Or they’d show graphic images of a fetus. That's exploitative and manipulative, taking advantage of women in a vulnerable situation.

So, when we said, whatever your decision is we'll work with you to achieve that, there was often a sigh of relief, a feeling of: ‘Oh, we've come to somewhere where we can actually be supported.’ The way the laws were framed were suspicious of women, forcing them to justify their decision making.

During the referendum campaign we had people coming for counselling who had abortions 20 or 25 years ago and hadn't spoken to anybody since about it.

The impact of having to travel overseas for abortion was particularly stark for women in poverty, who are isolated or marginalized. They must quickly book an appointment at an overseas clinic. They must book flights, clinic appointments, arrange a childminder. And all in a short time frame. They're trying to do so many things within a few days.

In any other surgical procedure or medical situations when a woman goes to an outpatient hospital for any reason it's usually a local hospital and someone is there to look after you. But women had to make their own arrangements to get home, buses from the airport, taxis from the clinics. All that after a medical procedure and maybe having travelled at five or six in the morning to get there. Some vulnerable women had to get money from a partner who they might be trying to leave. That pushed some women into using online abortion medication rather than having these services provided in a medical setting.

Many women found all this isolating, traumatic and shaming. Like they're a criminal in their own country and they're coming back in this surreptitious way hoping they won't meet anyone at the airport who might ask them where they have been. In post termination counselling many women talked about the injustice of that.

Having abortion services available in Ireland will mean there won’t be that panic and pressure.

Also, it’s important for women to have a sense that abortion is acceptable. I think psychologically that will be a big help to women.

During the referendum campaign we had people coming for counselling who had abortions 20 or 25 years ago and hadn't spoken to anybody since about it. It was a secret or an isolated part of their lives that they had kind of hidden away. The campaign gave people the courage to come forward.

I think if abortion is much more part of our general healthcare services with the same assessments, protocols and evaluations as other medical services, then it would take the responsibility away from women to find out all those things themselves, and rightly put the responsibility on the healthcare service to set the standard of care for them.

The referendum represented a cultural sea change in terms of listening to women and to their experiences. I’m absolutely delighted for all the women that have been in very vulnerable positions and been pushed to make journeys that they didn't want to make.

To find out more about Irish Family Planning Association please visit www.ifpa.ie.

Repealed the 8th: Ireland’s Abortion Referendum

from the Center for Reproductive Rights