Ohen a draft Supreme Court decision was leaked in May showing the judges intended to overturn Roe v Wade, many in the UK reacted with outrage. With good reason: such a change in law would leave the rules of abortion to the discretion of the states. Rights groups estimate that abortion could become illegal in about half of the states if successful. Americans would be forced to travel to states where it was still legal, or order expensive abortion drugs online, risking serious legal consequences. Overturning Roe v Wade would also likely spur anti-choice campaign groups to pursue legal action elsewhere in the world.
It can be easy in the UK to look at the US in horror, while overlooking issues of access to abortion closer to home. We are used to importing American discourse into the UK. It’s understandable: States are so large and so culturally influential that everything that happens there can seem heavy-handed and have the potential for a sort of butterfly effect. Abortion issues in the UK are different and less drastic than a complete overhaul of the law. But they are no less significant. The practical difficulties of access have a major impact on the lives and choices of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Earlier this month, Lucy Grieve, co-founder of Back Off Scotland, wrote an article for The Scotsman outlining the need to travel from Scotland to England for second trimester abortions, as no health board in Scotland provides abortion care up to the long-standing legal level. 24 week limit. It’s not much publicized (Grieve only found out about it while interviewing people for his work on buffer zones, the legally protected spaces set up around abortion clinics to deter protesters from harassing clients) . She was surprised at how many people described traveling to England for an abortion.
Grieve found that people had to travel to Bournemouth (about eight hours by train from Glasgow) and that 170 Scottish abortion clients had been referred by their doctors to travel to England for an abortion since 2019. The number actual may be higher, since some women can arrange their abortion by contacting English services directly.
“I was very surprised to find that in Scotland there is no board of health that provides abortion care up to the legal limit of 24 weeks,” she told me. . In some areas of the health board, she found that service had also stopped long before that. In Fife, for example, it’s 15 weeks and five days. Traveling a substantial distance for an abortion adds an unnecessary layer of practical complications to the procedure, from arranging time off at work to recuperating away from home or on the trip home. It can also create a psychological barrier, making the procedure more drastic than it otherwise would be.
“Something that echoes through the experiences I’ve heard is that this care requires a real support network,” Grieve said. “Even having someone who can travel with you and support you through the process.” The NHS pays for people to travel for abortions, although Grieve spoke to some who were unaware of this at the time and therefore paid for themselves. Any accompanying friends or family must fund themselves. During the pandemic, which has made traveling across the country or staying in a hotel much more difficult, the number of people traveling to England for abortions has roughly halved, she said.
In Northern Ireland, abortion was decriminalized in October 2019. But abortion services have still not been implemented, with Health Minister Robin Swann refusing to comply. Last month, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis announced he would intervene if this continued. DUP MP Carla Lockhart responded by saying Lewis wanted ‘to make Northern Ireland one of the most dangerous places in Europe to be a child in the womb, especially if that little baby has a disability”.
Naomi Connor of Alliance for Choice, a group that campaigns for abortion rights in Northern Ireland for women, trans men and non-binary people, explained that early medical abortion up to 10 weeks was the only thing available in Northern Ireland in the meantime. Even this service is provided unevenly, dependent on health districts and dependent on the dedication of health professionals. The majority of those needing an abortion after 10 weeks are still traveling to England. Again, their transport is chargeable, but that of any accompanying person is not.
Connor said the Department of Health’s refusal to provide a central website with information about abortion services in Northern Ireland has left a vacuum filled by anti-choice groups. Google’s top result for “abortion NI” is an anti-choice group posing as a provider of medical advice. “Regularly, we see women who have been in contact with Stanton (an anti-choice group), during the first weeks of their pregnancy, not realizing that they are an anti-choice group,” she said. declared.
An abortion at 20 weeks is more medically complex than one at five, and recovery times are likely to be longer, making travel more painful. Some fetal abnormalities are only detected on ultrasound at 20 weeks; Connor pointed to the irony that some of these emotional cases have helped campaign for abortion access in Northern Ireland, but second-trimester abortion is still not available.
The “abortion hierarchy,” which considers only certain abortions (say, for medical or financial reasons) to be morally acceptable, is pervasive even among liberals, but can be used to campaign for access. People who don’t believe that everyone has a right to bodily autonomy may be persuaded by instances where a medical condition actually forces someone’s decision. “We don’t believe in an abortion hierarchy, but later-stage abortions can be more complex,” Connor said. “The most complex pregnancies really should travel the least.”
Travel can have a huge psychological impact on people who want an abortion. A medical intervention becomes a multi-day event, often clandestine and solitary in an unfamiliar setting, and therefore becomes all the more memorable. The outcry in the UK over these two access issues has been silenced. Perhaps because practical difficulties such as these don’t make headlines as a plan to overthrow Roe v Wade. Perhaps because there is a latent malaise or judgment toward those who seek second-trimester abortions. Even people who identify as pro-choice often seem to qualify this position by treating, for example, abortion as something primarily necessitated by dire financial circumstances or by focusing on marginal cases involving extreme risks to health. These are valid reasons, of course, but it is equally valid for a pregnant person not to want to have a baby. Access to medical care should not depend on a postcode lottery.