Women from the north and south of Ireland have travelled to England to access abortion services since the advent of the British Abortion Act in 1967 (and before this as single expectant mothers.)1 Lacking help from health services in either jurisdiction of Ireland, activist networks on these abortion trails have emerged to support the thousands of women travelling (currently approximately 5000 per year) from the island of Ireland. These groups provide financial, logistical and emotional support. This post discusses some initial reflections from researching a specific trail — the Liverpool-Ireland Abortion Corridor — through the lens of historical and contemporary activist movements.
Getting the boat
Liverpool is a particularly resonant destination for Irish migrants. Research participants and newspaper archives referred to the “boat to Liverpool” as a euphemism for Irish migration, both for economic migrants and for those seeking an abortion. At the same time, Liverpool’s majority Catholic population (the largest in England) was referred to as one of the reasons why it was the most difficult place for English women (post 1967) to access an abortion on the NHS. Consequently, both Irish and Liverpudlian women had difficulties in accessing abortion care despite living in different legal positions.
Liverpool remains one of the key Irish abortion trails today (along with Manchester and London). Research on the Liverpool-Ireland Abortion Corridor focuses on the evolution of networks established by activists to support women along the trail. The London network has been well documented by Ann Rossiter and one of the Liverpool groups, Escort, has been acknowledged in Ruth Fletcher’s work.2 Archival resources and interviews with key participants in these networks has uncovered the history, care perspectives and politics of two Liverpool-based networks that provided accommodation to women: The Liverpool Abortion Support Service (LASS) which ran from roughly 1981–1984 and the aforementioned Escort which was founded in 1989 and formally disbanded in 2006. In addition, interviews with contemporary informal care providers in the Abortion Support Network, which helps women with finance and accommodation throughout England, lend a contemporary perspective on abortion care networks.
Activism and care
The three networks described above, despite performing similar functions, have different structures and backgrounds. Interestingly, there was no communication between the organizations and minimal knowledge of each other. LASS grew out of women’s health activist and Irish women’s networks in Liverpool, offering accommodation through a structure of inter-linked activists, however the group ebbed away with a lack of demand for accommodation. Escort, which had no links to LASS, began through student activism in the late 1980s and eventually became a registered charity in 1995.
It received some funding from students’ unions but provided predominantly accommodation. The Abortion Support Network, founded in 2006, is based on American models of abortion funding and considers accommodation a small part of its function with funding for abortion travel and procedures as its focus. The work of the Abortion Support Network highlights Ireland’s evolving multicultural society, as women who need support to travel to England are increasingly those more vulnerable in terms of immigration status and the right to travel.
It is clear that activists in Liverpool viewed helping Irish women as a wider spectrum of abortion rights activism; many were involved in wider access campaigns such as the Merseyside Abortion Campaign. Some of these early activists also took part in wider solidarity movements with Northern Irish women such as the “Troops Out” campaign and support for female political prisoners. LASS in particular was also aware of their role as English women helping Irish women and the colonial legacies that may have been inferred from this position. Activists from Ireland reported providing training on anti-Irish racism within networks. Some difficult discussions took place around the potential exclusion of certain women from support (with Northern Irish prison officers being mentioned by one participant and Protestant women by two others). However, ultimately as all women were affected by the law, it was decided that any woman who asked for help would receive it.
All of those involved in care networks were keen to clarify their roles as informal and non-professional caregivers; for example, participants stressed that they were not trained counselors and although ready to listen to women, they were not there to aid decision making. One mentioned specifically that she was uncomfortable with attempts to “educate” women in feminism and sexuality. Despite this informality, care networks in the past and present have developed structures to enable them to function efficiently. Many activists worked within healthcare or social services and provided training in appropriate care-giving behavior, and LASS and Escort held regular meetings with minutes documented and available. All stressed aspects of professionalism, including confidentiality and anonymity.
What is clear from exploring the informal care networks that have emerged in response to restrictive access to abortion is that, alongside the fact that such legislation does not stop abortion, many women feel compelled to provide solidarity and care to those women who do not have similar access to abortion. Whether this support is financial, logistical or emotional, it amounts to a feminist ethic of care, providing structure and continuity on a journey that can potentially be solitary and fraught with financial and emotional hardship.
- Lindsay Earner-Byrne, “The Boat to England: An Analysis of the Official Reactions to the Emigration of Single Expectant Irishwomen to Britain, 1922-1972,” Irish Economic and Social History XXX (2003), 52-70. Return to text.
- Ann Rossiter, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The “Abortion Trail” and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000 (London: Iasc Publishing, 2009). Return to text.