Where right to choose requires a plane ticket

April 29, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

DUBLIN - As the double-decker bus glides us through Phoenix Park on the outskirts of the city, our tour guide points out the mansion on the left. Up there in the second story window of the president's house, he says in a lilting brogue, a candle burns all the time.

When Mary Robinson became president in 1990, he tells us, she put a light in the window to welcome back all the Irish who had emigrated during the long, lean years. It has been there ever since.

Today, this country is as vibrant as the Internet on which the "Celtic Tiger" economy has thrived. The capital city is as international as the West Coast Coffee Company serving a fusion breakfast cuisine of bagels, croissants and scones to go with the cappuccino and Irish tea.

But there is one segment of the Irish population that still has to emigrate: Every year about 7,000 women with crisis pregnancies travel to England to have abortions.

To get some idea of what that means in a population of about 3.8 million, it's as if 500,000 American women had to go to Toronto. This frequent-flier reproductive right, this medical tourism, if you will, is described cynically by many here as "an Irish solution to an Irish problem."

This morning I ask Sherie de Burgh, an energetic longtime counselor in the Irish Family Planning Association (where a niece of mine has been a legal consultant), what this expression means. Running a hand through her short reddish-brown hair, she muses back to the time under British rule when the Irish dealt with barriers by sliding around the rules. So today Ireland has a nearly complete ban on abortions - and an escape route.

"The situation of unplanned pregnancy is not going away. We persist in refusing to acknowledge that reality," says Ms. de Burgh. "If we were in a place where women couldn't go to England, we'd have back street abortions."

The "Irish solution" is, ironically, England.

On this typical morning, says Ms. de Burgh, about 20 women are busy creating cover stories for their bosses and maybe families. They're getting together $1,000, finding a clinic in England, booking a plane, flying to a strange place, having an abortion and coming home. It's all done legally and, for the most part, secretly.

This problem exists because Ireland has the most regressive abortion laws in the European Union, in which it proudly claims membership. The Irish Constitution gives a fetus equal rights with a woman. Abortion is only legal if the pregnancy would cause death; even that is so undefined that a doctor performing such a procedure is at risk.

Ever since 1967, Irish women who could afford to have gone to England for legal abortions. But in the past 10 years, since a referendum reaffirmed the right to go overseas for this procedure, this emigration wave has become a tsunami.

At the IFPA, where 2,500 women last year sought counseling and information, Ms. de Burgh ticks off the laws: "It's legal to get information. It's legal to travel. It's legal to get an abortion in England. It's legal to get post-abortion care back here." In short, the right to choose is the right to travel.

But like much else in a fast-changing country, this "solution" - based in part on shame and secrecy - is beginning, just beginning, to open up. Last June, when Women on Waves' Dutch ship, dubbed the "abortion boat," anchored offshore in a floating challenge to the status quo, dozens and dozens of women called, willing to brave the media, asking for help. The doctors on board were ultimately prevented from providing abortions, but the whole event cast a spotlight on the great numbers of women who cannot afford to go to England.

Since then, the first Doctors for Choice group was formed, and then last month, a complex national referendum ended in a modest pro-choice victory. Meanwhile, in a country whose daily papers are as full of the priestly sexual abuse scandals as our own, the Catholic Church may be losing some of the iron moral grip on anti-abortion law.

In the wake of this, more Irish women have begun to speak up about their decisions and experiences, not shamefully and not as victims. Nevertheless, Ms. de Burgh says, "having an abortion is still an isolating experience in Ireland. The sense of being judged is enormous."

For now, in the midst of the most extraordinary changes, Ireland still exports its most personal problem. Twenty women a day make the round-trip voyage. On the return home, the welcoming candle in the Irish window casts a very dim glow.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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