By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
DUBLIN (Reuters) – Minutes after the test revealed she was pregnant, Amy saw only one option — to leave Ireland and have an abortion in Britain.
Her architect partner had lost his job in Ireland’s property crash and she was worried about hers, so the 29 year-old office assistant felt she had no choice.
“We found it hard enough to finance the abortion,” said Amy, who declined to give her full name because of the sensitive subject. “So how could we effectively support a child?”
Women’s activists say Ireland’s deep economic crisis may have driven more women to consider an abortion. But a growing number cannot afford to travel to Britain for the procedure and may be forced into the hands of underground abortionists.
A year later, Amy has not told her parents. Growing up in mainly Roman Catholic Ireland, abortion was taboo and she recalls how women rumored to have had one were shamed.
“Abortion was a no-no then, and still is now,” she said.
Terminating a pregnancy has long been a fraught issue in Ireland, where one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe allows it only when the mother’s life is in danger.
Women who have an abortion still face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, driving thousands abroad each year, mainly to Britain. Even that is a little more liberal than before a 1992 referendum which gave women the freedom to receive abortion information and travel abroad to terminate pregnancies.
Today, following the former ‘Celtic Tiger’s’ slide from boom to bust, Amy is not alone in seeking that route, although statistical evidence is hard to find.
Last year, 15 percent of the 1,300 women who visited the Dublin Well Women Center cited financial problems as the main reason for seeking information on terminating a pregnancy.
“Financial pressure might have always affected a women’s decision around whether she continued with her pregnancy but in the last year there was some sort of shift in the priorities,” Alison Begas, chief executive of the center, said.
“She would say she had lost her job, or her salary had been cut or even those for whom the guy has lost his job.”
Ireland crawled out of the longest recession of any euro zone country in the first quarter of this year, but sustained economic recovery is some way off.
Ann Rossiter, a London-based Irish author who for years helped Irish women seek terminations in Britain, has warned that the credit crunch could bring a return to illegal abortions.
Abortions in UK clinics start from 350 pounds ($551). There are also travel costs. “I see no reason why we wouldn’t have a return to the backstreet or self-induced abortions,” she said.
Between 1980 and end-2009, at least 142,060 women traveled for abortion services in England and Wales, according to the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).
Last year, 4,422 women providing Irish addresses had terminations in England and Wales, British figures show, down 178 on 2008. Numbers have fallen since 2001.
But IFPA says the figures are an underestimate as not everyone wants to provide their address for confidentiality reasons, and women also travel to the Netherlands.
“I think what makes it tougher is the stigma,” said Mara Clarke, of the UK-based Abortion Support Network. “(Abortion) is one of the most commonly performed medical procedures.”
Women in Catholic Poland also face strict laws. Official statistics show several hundred abortions performed annually but pro-choice campaigners estimate hundreds of thousands are performed underground or abroad, sometimes in poor conditions.
Traditionally Catholic Spain has changed its law making it easier for women to have a termination but some conservative-led regions have refused to allow their hospitals to perform them.
In decades of debate in Ireland both pro-choice and pro-life campaigners have had their victories.
A March YouGov poll for British sexual health consultants Marie Stopes showed 78 percent of those questioned supported abortion if the pregnancy endangers a woman’s health or is the result of sexual abuse, rape or incest.
A month later, a poll for the Pro-Life Campaign showed support for a continued ban, with 70 percent in favor of constitutional protection for the unborn child.
“People in Ireland just don’t want abortion to be introduced, and that’s very clear from the polls,” Cora Sherlock of the Pro-Life Campaign, said. “It’s not really an issue, because people are happy with the status quo.”
Ireland is defending its abortion law at the European Court of Human Rights, countering a legal challenge by three women who said it endangered their health and violated their rights. The two Irishwomen and a Lithuanian living in Ireland went to Britain for abortions.
“I think it could be the case that gets the political system really focused on trying to resolve the issue,” said Niall Behan, chief executive of IFPA, which supports the women.
While the court is unlikely to rule on the substance of Ireland’s abortion law, it could say it is deficient in respecting the right to private life of those concerned, said Adam McAuley, a law lecturer at Dublin City University.
But he sees no immediate change. “The state will probably dilly-dally, I can’t see it being quick,” he said.
“The reality is (politicians) can just see votes being lost on this rather than being gained.”
Rossiter knows it will take more than a court case for change. She has performed a one-woman-show, “Making a Holy Show of Myself, An Abortion Monologue”, to select Irish audiences.
“I got weary of the usual format of presenting talks on the abysmal state of Irish women’s reproductive rights,” she says in a flyer for her show. “But I am not hanging up my spurs to retire to one of God’s waiting rooms just yet.”