The story of women’s struggle for reproductive freedom is intimately entangled with the struggles of minority groups against marginalisation. For the Irish, the well-worn national legend of the immigrant worker travelling far across the sea to make his fortune is paralleled by another journey, made by women in silence, in secrecy and, too often, in shame. Laurie Penny reviews Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, Ann Rossiter’s new book about the struggle of these women
Every year, around 7,000 women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland travel to England to have abortions. Despite the efforts of feminist campaigners, abortion remains effectively illegal in both states, and women with unwanted pregnancies are still obliged to find the money to travel overseas or risk their safety buying illegal abortion pills on the black market. Over the course of 40 years, 180,000 women have arrived in London, often alone and at late stages of pregnancy by the time they have gathered the necessary funds and information, usually vulnerable and frightened and desperately in need of the support that their governments refuse to provide. In the 1980s, a brave group of Irish women came together in sisterhood to offer that support – whatever it took.
The story of the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) – and its sister organisation, the Spanish Women’s Abortion Support Group (SWASG) – is movingly retold in Ann Rossiter’s recently-released book Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora. For more than 20 years, this London-Irish underground provided accommodation, information, money and transport to women arriving in the capital for abortions.
Rossiter, a founding member of IWASG, has drawn the book together from hundreds of hours of painstaking research and interviews with the women involved. They stretch from the group’s inception in 1980 through to the pro-choice revival of 2008, when women from all over the world came together to fight for Northern Irish women to be granted the same basic rights to control over their own bodies that have been enjoyed by their sisters in the rest of the UK since 1967.
Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora launched in London and Dublin in April, and the timing could not have been better. Feminists across the country are now carrying copies of Rossiter’s book, which functions for today’s campaigners as part inspirational history lesson, part handbook for practical feminist action wherever need is most pressing. And with scores of women still travelling from Ireland for abortions every week, need is certainly pressing. Nearly 30 years after the formation of IWASG, feminist groups are mobilising once more to offer sanctuary to ‘abortion tourists’ – and taking the story of the IWASG collective as a starting point.
For Ann Rossiter, it is important for today’s activists to remember that ‘IWASG and SWASG were collectives, and members took their responsibility towards abortion seekers very seriously. The group may have been entirely voluntary and run on no money at all, but members had a lot of commitment – and you can’t buy that, although today a more professional organisation will work just as well. The times are different now. We were dealing with an underground, illegal situation at the Irish end. Anyone involved with abortion was being picketed and doorstepped by a very vocal opposition. Now that the war seems to be over in the North, things should begin to look up. But the Family Planning Association is still picketed all day, every day, in Belfast and Derry.’
Blanca Fernandez, who was involved in abortion support work in London from 1987, agrees that ‘both IWASG and SWASG women were grassroots activists in the real sense of the word. They would turn their hand to anything, taking women to the clinic, producing stickers, banners and posters, addressing meetings and conferences highlighting the plight of abortion seekers and raising money for them. This was real sisterhood and they didn’t get – or expect – any glory or medals for it.’
With laws in place in the 1980s to outlaw even the dissemination of information about abortion in Ireland, much of the function of the abortion underground was to fill that gap, signposting desperate women to clinics and providing basic medical information. ‘Something I do remember vividly while answering the phone is women whispering,’ says Isabel Ros Lopez. ‘You’d have to ask them to speak up, but of course they wouldn’t; they were afraid of being overheard.’
Fed up of being afraid
Across Britain and Ireland, women are fed up of being afraid to be overheard, although a tenacious taboo against seeking or fighting for access to abortion remains firmly in place. Over the past 12 months, threats to abortion rights in the UK have energised a new generation of British women to stand up in defence of their reproductive freedoms. Many of these recruits are women who might not have called themselves feminists in the past. Attacks by pro-life lobbyists and anti-choice MPs such as Nadine Dorries and Conservative leader David Cameron, along with the real threat of restrictive amendments to the human fertilisation and embryology (HFE) bill in 2008, provided a flashpoint.
Women of all ages and backgrounds came together in October 2008 to protect their rights to safe, legal pregnancy termination up to 24 weeks and to demand pro-choice amendments to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland. In Parliament Square, hundreds of women and men gathered to protest against anti-choice amendments and to support the Irish abortion amendments put forward by Diane Abbott MP.
Gwyneth Lonegran, of the young socialist-feminist network Feminist Fightback, explains: ‘There is much greater concern over abortion rights recently, because of the HFE bill and the attempts to ban abortion or severely restrict it. It’s clear that we live in a society where women’s autonomy is still not valued.’ With rumours circulating in Westminster that prospective Conservative cabinet ministers are already in talks about how to launch their next attack on abortion rights, it seems that this new energy for pro-choice activism may be all too prescient.
From New York to London
In 2001, in New York City, a service operating along much the same lines as IWASG was formed when Cat Megill, a hotline director for the National Abortion Federation, was asked to host a young woman in desperate need of abortion, with nowhere else to stay. ‘After that,’ says Megill, ‘I was hooked.’
Megill founded the Haven Coalition, a service hosting and supporting the hundreds of women who travel to New York every year in search of the reasonable abortion access denied to them in many parts of the United States. (Some 86 per cent of US counties lack even a single abortion provider, and many existing providers will not end late-term pregnancies.) In 2008, Mara Clarke, a former director of the Haven Coalition, moved to London with the express intention of setting up a similar service to help Irish women travelling to London – and found a broad base of feminist support waiting to be tapped.
At a meeting on 29 April, activist groups including Feminist Fightback pledged their support and that of other feminist organisations to Clarke’s as-yet-unnamed group, which is to begin operating in the summer of 2009, with help and advice from former IWASG members. ‘We wanted to call it Haven UK, but in Britain that’s a domestic violence shelter,’ explains Clarke. It is, perhaps, telling that nearly every English synonym for ‘place of safety’ is already in use by an organisation providing women with support in addition to the scant government services available.
Dilemmas of practical feminism
This type of practical feminism, which Ann Rossiter calls ‘welfare feminism’, is not without its contradictions. Ann Hayes, a former IWASG member, says that: ‘At the back of your head you have the impression that you are bolstering a service that should be funded by the taxpayer … We are engaged in a version of philanthropy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, something that really belongs to the 19th century and earlier. This is all wrong, you think to yourself.’
Today’s feminist activists struggle with this dilemma. Mara Clarke puts it most succinctly: ‘Ask any abortion rights activist what she wishes most, and she’ll probably tell you, “I wish I didn’t have a job.”‘
But in a world where women’s bodies are still battlegrounds for the moral, conservative and sectarian claims of the states in which they live, welfare feminism has a vital part to play. Practical feminist organisation helps to fill the gap in services and raises awareness of the continuing struggles that women face in accessing basic self-determination. Although these struggles can often seem dauntless and unending, although the brave and committed activists of the 1980s are now in their fifties and sixties and, as Ann Rossiter says, ‘tired’ of fighting for rights that remain denied to Irish women and countless others, there is, at least, a new generation of feminists to whom the women of IWASG can ‘pass the torch’.
The new London abortion support network is looking for volunteers. If you might be able to offer a sofa and supper to an Irish woman seeking abortion, or you can donate your time, money or expertise to the group (or you think of a catchy name!) please get in touch. You can contact Mara Clarke by phone on 07913 353530, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.abortionsupport.org.uk
Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora is published by the Irish Abortion Solidarity Campaign. Email email@example.com