What It's Like to Travel to a Foreign Country for an Abortion
Every year, thousands of Irish women travel to the UK to access safe and legal abortion. These are their stories.
All illustrations by Tom Humberstone
This week, Ireland votes on whether it will repeal the 8th Amendment, which denies women the right to an abortion in all circumstances except in cases where her life is in danger. In the run up to this historic vote, Broadly will be giving a platform to the victims of this inhumane law and the activists fighting for change. You can follow our coverage ahead of Friday's vote here.
Every year, thousands of Irish women travel to the UK, where abortion is legal, to terminate their pregnancies. These women are, relatively speaking, the lucky ones. Low-income women, those in abusive relationships who are unable to leave their partners, and migrant women without the necessary paperwork may find themselves unable to access abortion care. Meanwhile, the experience of traveling to a foreign country for medical treatment in itself can be profoundly traumatizing.
In April 2016, Dublin-based activists Grace Dyas and Emma Fraser created NOT AT HOME, a durational art campaign that recounts the journeys of Irish women abroad to access abortion services. The pair collected anonymous online testimony from women and spoke with with healthcare professionals, taxi drivers, and others who help Irish women seeking abortions on a daily basis.
"As we get closer to a referendum, the division between those on both sides of this issue has continued to deepen," explains Dyas. "As that gap widens, the space for thoughtful articulation of women’s lived experiences gets smaller and smaller. We developed NOT AT HOME as a calm, inclusive way to reclaim some of that space for the thousands of women who have traveled."
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Fraser and Dyas believe that it is vital to listen to those who have lived experience of Ireland's abortion laws. "Before any vote is cast or any mind is made up, we believe we need to understand the reality of our current situation," Fraser says. "We hope to give people some time and some space to listen, to empathize and to reflect."
Below are some of the testimonies that Fraser and Dyas have collected from Irish women who were forced to travel abroad for abortions. NOT AT HOME has given all the interviewees pseudonyms to protect their identity.
"I was 18 at the time, in Year Six, and about to do my Leaving Cert [Irish high school finals]. I found out I was pregnant. I was too scared to tell anyone. I didn't know what to do. I was with my ex-boyfriend at the time. He wanted to keep the baby, and didn't want to go to college. But I didn't. I wanted to go to college. I had so many plans that didn't fit around having a baby. I didn't want to be another number or another teen mom. So I went to the Well Woman clinic [a medical facility for female patients] with my best friend. I knew to go there because an older girl I'd worked with had had one before.
My boyfriend was two years older than me; he had a good job at the time. I wouldn't have been able to afford this. I remember estimating needing about 1,000 euros [approximately $1,197] for travel, hotel and the procedure. My boyfriend's passport was out of date, so we had to get the boat. I was so scared—I didn't know what to expect. I don't think he realized the seriousness of the situation. He was acting like it was a holiday we were going on.
I live with my older sister as both our parents passed away. My mom was always pro-choice, and so was my sister. We discussed things like this before. Now, looking back, I don't know why I didn't tell her. We were so close, I don't know why I didn't say something. She was also pregnant at the time too, but in a very different situation. She was an adult, with her own house, and both her and her now-husband had really good jobs.
When I sat and thought about keeping it, it just didn't make sense. I had nothing to offer a child, I was still a child myself. Our trip to England, looking back [on it], was absolutely terrible. We had to take a train all the way from Wales to Manchester. I was already in a horrible situation that I was determined to resolve. Having to make a trip to England just felt unnecessary.
The procedure was actually the easy part. The scariest part was being in a different country with no support from people in Ireland. The trip back was the worst. I had to make that horrible journey back in pain. I remember trying to sleep on the boat was the worst part. I felt so vulnerable. All this would have been less terrifying if I had been able to get this done in Ireland instead."
"I had an abortion when I was 18 years old. I had been seeing a guy for about two months and missed a period and took a test, which was positive. I remember being in shock and cradling him when he cried, and feeling a numbness, but also a certainty that I couldn't have a baby. I didn't tell my mam, which I now regret, because I think she would have been caring and nice. But at the time we still had a teenager-parent relationship, and I didn't know how she would react.
We had a pre-abortion appointment in Dublin, and I clearly remembered the nurse telling me that the center were not to blame when this all 'comes out in the wash.' I was so frightened, and when they asked me my reasons for having an abortion, I didn't know what they wanted me to say, and was worried I wouldn't have the right answers, and they'd refuse to do it. My boyfriend at the time was working in Dunnes [an Irish retail store], and he paid for the whole thing, flights and all.
We stayed in a hostel in London because we couldn't afford anything else, so we spent two nights there. In the weeks leading up to it, I was so sick. I'd wake up and get sick, and then I'd have to get off the train to get sick again. And sometimes again, mid-morning. It was awful. I didn't tell any of my friends about it, mainly because I didn't know how they'd react, and also because telling them would make it more real.
The morning of the procedure, we had to travel for about an hour and a half across London in rush-hour traffic. I had to get off the tube to vomit a couple of times, and it was horrendous. When we finally got there I remember a little old man praying outside the clinic with his rosary beads, and I was so angry at him, and at Ireland for making me travel all the way over there. They didn't let my boyfriend in, he had to stay outside in a little prefab waiting room.
When I went in, I was sitting alongside a girl who was sobbing. I wanted to say something to her, but I didn't know what. GMTV [a breakfast TV show] was on. Then I went into the room and had to put my feet up in the stirrups while I was consciously sedated. They don't let Irish women take the tablets, so it had to be just the surgical option."
"I was from a rural area with low tolerance for scandalized girls. My mother had repeatedly warned me that I was on my own if I got pregnant young. 'There's no excuse these days,' she said. My overriding fear was that my parents would find out. I knew it would kill them. I decided that I was going to terminate. It was the only way I could get out of this without my parents finding out. It was the only way that my life could get back to normal.
From the moment I went to the doctor, I was in the system. A scan was scheduled. I was told to start taking folic acid as soon as possible for the baby. The other women in the hospital waiting room were all adults. They looked so calm, reading magazines or keeping their toddlers entertained. This was a routine appointment to them, before they did the grocery shopping. I was terrified, but tried to hold an expression like theirs—an expression that said that my pregnancy was planned too, that I wasn't a statistic and didn't need their pity and judgment.
I saw a woman who used to be a friend of my parents. I noticed she was pregnant too. She must have been coming in for a scan. I hid in the corridor. The doctor scanned my belly and told me that I was nine weeks pregnant. He started taking me through the schedule, advising when my next scan would be. I found it hard to listen because I was trying to find the moment and right words. Then I told him that I was planning to terminate the pregnancy. I said 'terminate,' instead of 'abortion,' because I thought it sounded more grown-up, more considered, less tacky.
He stopped what he was doing. He looked at me, said nothing for a moment, then turned away and taking off his rubber gloves he said, 'I can't discuss that with you.' I shuffled my cringe-worthy, filthy body off the medical chair and left the room as fast as I could. Left him there, judging me.
Smartphones weren't around then, so I used our home computer to find a clinic in London, and emailed them. It was going to cost 600 euros ($718), plus extra for flights and accommodation. I didn't have that. I had a summer job as a waitress and no savings. My unemployed older boyfriend didn't have it either. In fact, he owed money. Besides, why on earth would he contribute when he so passionately disapproved?
So I started to save. I felt like a ticking time bomb was growing inside me. The apron I wore at work grew tighter, and I grew weaker. The longer it took me to save, the more I was growing. The clinic website warned that after certain junctures in the term the procedure got more complicated, less legal. I had already passed one or two junctures. I borrowed money from a loan shark that my boyfriend's mother used. I pretended the money was for a car."
"In my late 20s I became pregnant after a casual fling with a friend. I was lucky in that my few friends and family who I told were incredibly supportive, and respected whatever choice I would make. I particularly remember my father saying he felt he had no right to say anything as he would never be in my situation. I went to the countryside for a week with my mother so I could take some time to decide what to do.
The moment I found out felt like a nightmare, and the want to terminate was there immediately. However, I've always weighed up options and tried to give myself time with important decisions. This was and still is the hardest decision I've ever made. There is nothing casual or easy about it for me. I've always been pro-choice and felt anyone who was otherwise were angry, religious zealots. I brushed them off as crazy. But being in that situation it became far more complex for me. It was a human issue, and a personal one, not a political or religious thing. However, growing up and living in a country that makes abortion illegal made it ten times harder for me to figure out what was right for me.
I went ahead and traveled to Liverpool [and] had a termination, which was more painful and exhausting than anyone says. Thankfully I could stay an extra night to recover, although there was extensive bleeding and pain for a week or so. I felt secure that I had made the right choice. I still grieved for a loss of what might have been, and I remember the counsellor in Ireland saying that I should try and look back without regret, which is very hard to predict. And I thought, and still do, that I have no regret."
"It was seven years ago. I woke up and I just knew. I took a test—I was right. It was a fling. I didn't want a child. I was a 100 percent sure. I looked at it like getting a dentist appointment: just getting it done.
I cried and I panicked and I wondered where I would get the money. I figured it out—found a clinic in Leeds, which had the cheapest flights I could find. There was a girl on the plane with her boyfriend, about 16. I thought, Is she doing the same as me?
I got a taxi to the clinic. The taxi driver gave me sweets and said he would pray for me. Was he nice, was he weird? I didn't know. I arrived and had booked to be knocked out. In, out, done. But I'd had a cup of tea at the airport, so I couldn't have the anesthetic—I had to be fully conscious. And there I was in Leeds. I could go nowhere, and come back, or wait another day. I have often thought about the tea."