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The Abortion Stories the Citizen's Assembly Was Not Allowed to Hear

By: Abigail Aiken
March 10, 2017

Published in The irish Times

Over four full weekends, a selection of experts and academics have briefed the members of the Citizens’ Assembly on the medical, ethical and legal intricacies of abortion. At the penultimate meeting, the voices of those who have actually been affected by the Eighth Amendment were finally allowed to be heard.

This allowance was initially lauded by proponents of participatory, evidence-based policymaking. Yet it soon became apparent that any initial optimism was sorely misplaced. Not only were women’s stories pre-recorded and pared down to the bare minimum – each was given only seven minutes compared to the 15 allocated to experts – but the stories of the least advantaged women in Irish society were represented by silence.

This silence occurred because the assembly organisers inexplicably chose to ignore the stark inequity that is happening in Ireland every day as a result of the Eighth Amendment. Women who need an abortion but who lack the financial or social resources to travel offshore to a clinic must break the law by carrying out their own abortion at home.

These women often live in poverty, unable to leave their children, desperate to keep their abortion secret from an abusive partner or disapproving family, or they lack the required documentation to travel. An estimated 1,000 of them self-source their own abortions using online telemedicine – abortion pills – every year. Yet their stories were entirely absent from Saturday’s testimony.

Forced to become criminals

Instead, the Citizens’ Assembly organisers chose to ignore the reality that women who have abortions in Ireland are forced to become criminals to exert control over their own lives and bodies. The experiences of women who have suffered this indignity and injustice are not difficult to find. Last year several colleagues and I published a study of the experiences of 5,650 women in Ireland and Northern Ireland who accessed early medical abortion through online telemedicine between 2010 and 2015.

This week, Rosa (for Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism & Austerity) will drive a bus around the country, raising awareness of the option of early medication abortion using online telemedicine and calling out the double standard set by the Eighth Amendment.

While availability and use of these medications is not a secret, exactly what they are and how they work is very often misunderstood. Several expert speakers at the assembly have quoted the figures from our study of the rising number of women who are self-sourcing through online telemedicine. But amazingly, the assembly members have not been offered any further detail about what abortion using online telemedicine entails or who uses it. They have had no opportunity to learn the facts about self-sourced abortion in Ireland, to ask questions and to hear first-hand from women who have experienced it.

Positive feelings

This oversight is particularly unfortunate because online telemedicine abortion is so often portrayed as depraved and dangerous. On the contrary, women themselves overwhelmingly report feelings of relief, satisfaction and gratitude. They experience positive benefits for their health, wellbeing and personal autonomy. In fact, the only commonly reported negative experience is that they have to break the law for the sake of their own physical and mental health. Time and time again women have told us: it is not the abortion that is harmful, but the laws that so stigmatise and isolate them for choosing it.

The organisers of the Citizens’ Assembly had the power to give Irish women the opportunity to tell these stories. Sadly, they instead did what those in power do so often. They looked the other way and allowed the voices of the least advantaged members of society to go unheard.

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