The abortion travel agents: ‘Some women know what they need, others just say: help’
When The Handmaid’s Tale first came out in 1985, the initial response was broadly that people thought such threats to women’s bodies and reproductive rights “couldn’t happen here”. By the time it aired as a TV series in 2017, just after Donald Trump was inaugurated in the US, people were no longer so sure. With every headline about gains in reproductive rights – Ireland repealing the eighth amendment in 2018, which had effectively banned abortions – there are others that underscore how fragile these rights are, wherever you live.
Recent changes to abortion law in Texas, which have prohibited abortions after six weeks – one of the most restrictive rules in the nation – and Poland’s near total ban on the procedure last year make it clear just how slippery the slope still is. We have to ask: what kind of country do we want to live in? A democratic one in which every individual is free to make decisions concerning their health and body, or one in which half the population is free and the state corrals the bodies of the other half?
Women who are not allowed to make their own decisions about whether or not to give birth are, in fact, owned by the state, as the state claims the right to dictate the uses to which their bodies must be put. The work of the Abortion Support Network(ASN) and the need for it in apparently progressive Europe is a stiff reminder: democratic rights don’t grow on trees. They must be struggled for and maintained. Those at risk of forced childbearing should be very grateful to have such organisations and their volunteers in their corner.
– MARGARET ATWOOD
In the evenings, after she is done with her day job in London, Ciara makes phone calls to people across Europe. Everyone she calls has contacted the ASN, a UK-based charity that helps people from European countries to access abortions. She is one of about 80 volunteers providing logistical advice, travel planning, a place to stay and solidarity to people who live in countries with restrictive abortion access. Mara Clarke, who founded ASN in 2009, says, “People think that abortion travel is an American or developing-world thing, but it isn’t.”
While there has rightfully been extensive coverage of the US, given the introduction of restrictive abortion laws in Texas and the potential for the Roe v Wade ruling to be overturned this year, the evolving situation in Europe has received little attention.
When she set up ASN, Clarke was told there was no demand for a European abortion helpline. “I knew that wasn’t right,” she says. “If there were women who could afford to pay to travel for an abortion, there were other women who couldn’t.”
Clarke was proved right. Calls came first from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, and the charity began helping hundreds of women every year. As abortion laws became more liberal in those countries in 2018 and 2019, ASN opened their services to Poland, Malta and Gibraltar, and anyone else in Europe who needs it (just because abortion is technically legal in a country does not mean it is always straightforward to access). ASN also works with partner organisations across the continent who direct people to one another for local advice and funding.
‘Money is often the biggest hurdle for our callers’: Ciara, 36, helpline volunteer, London
I grew up in Dublin. Abortion was something I’d talk about with my friends, but the “going to England” part it entailed was mysterious to us. There was always this concern that if one of us needed an abortion, none of us would know how to go about it.
I heard about ASN when I went to a vigil at the Irish embassy in London in 2012 for Savita Halappanavar. Savita had died from a septic miscarriage at a Galway hospital after her requests for an abortion were denied. Her death underlined to me that the fight for reproductive rights is about life and death, and it drove the campaign to repeal Ireland’s eighth amendment, which effectively banned abortion.
I began donating to ASN, and soon after responded to a call for volunteers. Working on the helpline was scary at first. I got training and support, but I was speaking to people in vulnerable situations. In my second week, a man called from a Northern Ireland hospital because his wife’s pregnancy was in danger. He thought they might have to travel to England to get an abortion and wanted to know what he needed to do.
We work with each caller to see what they need. It can be anything from a simple question about arranging an appointment at a clinic, to figuring out the most efficient travel plan for them and assisting with money. The later the abortion, the more expensive it becomes. The cost of the procedure, which is £1,300 in England for a second trimester abortion, plus travel, childcare and time off work, can be high. Money is often the biggest hurdle for our callers. I’ve given a grant of £5 before – that was all that was preventing a woman from accessing an abortion.
You need to speak to most clients several times. I fit the calls around my day job, either during lunchtime or in the evenings. When I was in the office, I’d find a meeting room where I could speak privately. It can require a mental shift to go from speaking to someone about something that is so emotionally challenging for them, to returning to my regular life.
You really get the warm and fuzzies from doing this. In 2018, when the eighth amendment was put to a referendum in Ireland and repealed, an ASN colleague was approached by a woman who mentioned me by name and said I saved her life. I think about that often.
‘Some know what they need; others just say, “Please help me”’: Kasia, 35, adviser and helpline volunteer, London
A few years ago I joined some activist groups on Facebook and saw ASN’s ad for Polish-speaking volunteers. This work combines my two favourite things: feminism and logistics. When someone calls, I can give tangible support. There are people who know what they need, and others who are completely lost and just say, “Please help me.”
We have a checklist of questions to understand their circumstances. We find out how far along they are, as there are different legal limits in different countries – sometimes abortion pills can be an answer. The UK has the longest limit at 24 weeks. That, and where they live, helps us figure out the most suitable place for callers to travel to. Most people from Poland travel to the Netherlands or Spain, and most people from Ireland go to England. We get calls from other countries where the law is more liberal; in Italy, many doctors conscientiously object to abortion and in France abortion is permitted on demand only up to 14 weeks.
Now we ask about passports; Brexit means people from the EU can no longer travel to the UK using only their national ID card, which affects many callers. We also find out how much money they have, to give grants.
Callers are often angry, especially from Poland. They feel abandoned by the government and stigmatised by society. It can be nice to offer solidarity and say, “It’s not you, it’s the system. It shouldn’t be like this.” And to remind them that they are not alone.
There’s this unspoken assumption that abortion is always a difficult choice, or there is suffering to endure, but that’s not the reality. No one wants an abortion, but there are people who don’t feel guilt. I’ve also spoken to callers who didn’t believe in abortion, but need one.
The work can get stressful and busy, but there’s a feeling of solidarity. We have a few WhatsApp groups, and when something happens, the volunteers reach out and lift each other up; that support is tremendous.
‘The people who come from Ireland are so brave and strong to travel such a distance’: Patricia, 67, host and retired social work trainer, Liverpool
My daughter works at the city’s Merseyside Clinic and told me there were women coming over from Ireland seeking abortions who had nowhere to stay. This was nine years ago and I thought, “I’ve got a spare room.” I became ASN’s first host in Liverpool. There are about seven of us now.
We get emails asking if anyone can take a client on particular dates. When I say yes, I’m given their name, age and when they’re coming. It’s not a lot of background, but it’s as much as I need.
Everybody I’ve hosted has come from Ireland. Even though the law has changed there, access to an abortion after 12 weeks is permitted only in limited circumstances, so the women who come now tend to be further along than they used to be. I’ll pick them up, make a meal and we’ll eat together. Some want to tell you everything about their lives and you have a laugh; others are feeling more vulnerable and don’t want to engage. I let people talk as much or as little as they want. Why they are having an abortion has nothing to do with me.
Most come on their own. Many have children at home. Often they haven’t told anyone what they’re doing. I had a young woman who was a refugee in Ireland. There was also a grandmother who brought her 15-year-old granddaughter. The people who come are so brave and strong to travel such a distance. They’re having to make decisions and organise things quickly. It’s rewarding to be able to support them through that.
‘In Malta, we’re taught from a young age that abortion is synonymous with murder’: Hanien, 24, volunteer for a helpline in Malta, currently living in Dublin
I was against abortion when I was younger because that was the only reality I knew. Malta is a Catholic country and there is anti-abortion sentiment in its institutions. We’re taught from a young age that abortion is synonymous with murder, and that a woman who seeks one is evil.
Maltese law states that abortion is a criminal offence, with no exceptions. Any person who seeks or helps with one can face up to three years in prison. The penalty is higher for medical professionals.
I became interested in women’s rights around 2016 when the morning-after pill became legally available. I’ve volunteered for the Family Planning Advisory Service in Malta since it started in 2020. It’s a pro-choice helpline providing information about reproductive health choices. Because of the law in Malta, we cannot help people get an abortion or give them money towards travel to get one, but we can share publicly available information, like the fact that ASN exists.
The main danger in this work is the social stigma. Malta is a small country and you can be easily identified. The stigma is greater if you’re a woman and even more so if you are a person of colour. It’s framed as, “Look at this person who is foreign and bringing this evil on us.”
Sometimes people are surprised that I do this. I wear a hijab and people associate being religious with being anti-choice and anti-abortion. But that is misinformation and ignorance about how Muslims view abortion. This work is my way of standing up against damaging patriarchal structures that affect me and my peers.
‘I hate that people are panicking about money, childcare and flights’: Pip, 26, veterinary surgeon and volunteer, Manchester
My job is to make posts for ASN’s Instagram that help people understand the charity’s work and encourage people to donate. I fit it in around my day job.
I became interested in abortion access when I was 17. I was at boarding school and a girl asked me for help getting an abortion. She felt alone and terrified – and this was in England where abortion is legal. I hate that people from countries where abortion isn’t legal are panicking about money, childcare and booking flights.
Being an openly q***r person, I’m no stranger to online abuse and harassment, which helps with the moderation side of the job. We have a coordinated response which boils down to, “Don’t feed the trolls.” So on Instagram, hateful comments get deleted immediately and people get blocked. We have a lot of evangelical Christian, American men harassing us. “Murderers” is a common insult. And there’s a lot of misogynistic harassment and insinuations that if a woman wants to have unprotected s*x, then she should have to deal with the consequences.
An American man was repeatedly making threatening comments on our Facebook page and one of our followers reported him to the FBI. He was recently sentenced to 20 months.
You can feel powerless in the face of the wave of restrictions on people’s bodily autonomy. But it does feel powerful to know the work we’re doing changes lives.
‘We can’t change the law on our own, but this work gives me a sense of agency’: Aga, 27, Abortion Without Borders volunteer, Warsaw, Poland
After the recent death of a 37-year-old woman who was denied an abortion in Poland, there’s been an atmosphere of grief here. It’s the third known case reported since a near-total ban came into force in January 2021.
Three years ago, I moved to the Netherlands and a friend told me the Abortion Network Amsterdam(ANA) needed Polish-speaking volunteers. I did email shifts responding to people and helping them set up travel and appointments. I once accompanied someone to a clinic; my role was to translate, but there was a support element, too.
ANA helps people with costs, and when their funds aren’t enough, they contact ASN. Both are part of the Abortion Without Borders network, which is made up of groups across Europe.
The volume of emails increased dramatically in the run-up to the Polish abortion ban. After I returned to Poland six months ago, I had to stop helping individuals directly: I work as a translator, helping with medical records and press releases, but I no longer set up abortions myself because when you’re in Poland, you have to be far more careful. You need to find where the line lies and that’s murky; the way the laws are set up means there’s a lot of room for interpretation. We’re very careful to stick to things we can’t be prosecuted for.
While we don’t have control over what happens in Polish hospitals, and we can’t change the law on our own, doing this work gives me a sense of agency in an otherwise overwhelming situation.
‘I cannot have this baby’: testimonies from women who have contacted the charity
“I am 21 weeks and three days pregnant. I wish I could have this baby, but it has been diagnosed with severe brain defects. I need help in arranging a trip abroad. I have no idea how to go about this.”
“I am eight or nine weeks pregnant. I have a very difficult family and financial situation. My husband beats me and my children, and abuses alcohol. I don’t want the same for my third child. My husband raped me and it turns out that I am pregnant.”
“I am pregnant: 21 weeks. I only found out at 16 weeks. I live in Poland. I cannot have this baby. I have no money or support because the baby’s father left me as soon as he found out. I don’t have money to go abroad to a clinic, so I ordered abortion pills, but after over a month, they still haven’t arrived. I don’t know what to do.”
“I am 18 weeks pregnant and the baby has a serious heart defect. The doctors told me to expect that at any moment the baby may die. I can’t bear it, I can’t function normally. All the antenatal tests so far have ruined us financially because they are not covered in Poland.”
“I feel incapacitated in my country and am ashamed that I live here and have to get help from people from a foreign country. I know that after the procedure a stone will fall from my heart. Carrying such a sick child is probably every mother’s worst nightmare. I will be grateful to you till the end of my life, and I will support you as much as I can because there will be more women like me because of the stupid law in this country.”
“The doctor told me the baby was very unlikely to survive in the womb, but because of our legislation I was not able to access an abortion. I wish that I lived in a country where they trusted women to make the right choices for themselves.”
“I don’t want to write that our pregnancy was a matter of life and death, but it was. You gave us a chance for further life. We are still so shocked and grateful that there is still such a thing as genuine, honest kindness and selflessness in this world.”
Wow this is important. I have a friend who had to book a whole flight to another country so she could get safe and affordable abortion services.