Why would women in Britain seek illegal abortions?

// 23 November 2007

Abortion has been legal in the UK for 40 years. So why has the BBC discovered that illegal abortions are still taking place?

BBC Radio 5 Live undertook an investigation, after a discussion in a chat room suggested that women were seeking out drugs to induce abortion without having to consult a doctor. We can surmise that someone suggested going to a Chinese medicine shop, because that is where they sent their undercover reporter, posing as an “illegal immigrant”.

Details so far are limited – the documentary will be broadcast on Sunday at 11.30AM – but the BBC’s story on it brings up some worrying questions about the availability of abortion, and the stigma associated with abortion.

First up, the reasons why women would put themselves at risk by downing illegal pills of questionable providence, when they should be able to access legal, safe abortion with a simple visit to their GP or a private clinic. As I said, the BBC sent their reporter undercover as an illegal immigrant, suggesting that they thought that might be one driver. The story goes on to say:

Abortion is not free on the NHS for every woman. If someone’s home country doesn’t have a reciprocal NHS agreement, or you are here illegally – then you face paying between £500 and £1,500.

If so, it is yet another worrying indication that the government’s prioritising of the drive to get rid of illegal immigrants over healthcare rights for all is dangerous and wrong-headed. But the BBC also suggests that it is likely that British citizens that are seeking out illegal terminations:

Community health workers told us the issue of illegal abortion affects many women from young British teenagers who do not trust their doctor, through to people who are here illegally and are frightened of being found out.

This is, again, a significant sign of failure. Yet is it surprising? Only a few weeks ago, one doctor was accused of giving patients biased advice when they come seeking an abortion. A quick look at Pro-Choice Majority, a site which features the stories of hundreds of women who have had abortions, reveals that although many women feel supported in their decision by their doctors, it is not uncommon for women to feel like they are being judged. Here’s one quote from the site:

My doctor was very rude and gave me no information I had to look in the phone book for a clinic, luckily they took care of me. I believe it is any person’s right to an abortion if they believe it to be the right thing for them.

One of the reasons that Pro-Choice Majority is so important, is that it demonstrates that there are lots and lots of ordinary women out there who have had abortions; who don’t regret having those abortions. As Irina Lester recently set out at The F Word, the media tends to select women to talk about their abortions who have been traumatised by the experience. As she said: “If the dominant idea promoted in society is that abortion causes regret and depression and these are the only possible and valid post-abortion feelings, there is little surprise that women are finding it hard to cope.”

Perhaps it is also no surprise that some women – including teenagers who may not want to approach their family doctor, or who may have been rebuffed or felt judged – opt for the quiet, but illegal and potentially very dangerous alternative. It’s a sad indictment of our society that this still happens.

Cross posted at Liberal Conspiracy

Photo by willem velthoven, shared under a Creative Commons license

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