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Abortion Support Network share their harrowing, human stories of Ireland

This tiny charity funds women forced to travel for abortion care – its founder Mara Clarke talks through the truth of healthcare extradition as the country votes on repeal

Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.

Voting booths across Ireland have opened to the public on the repeal of the Eighth amendment, a law within the Irish constitution which bans abortion in nearly all circumstance. Every ‘X’ etched on to the ballot paper will shape the future of body autonomy, pushing the predominantly Catholic country into secular modernism. Undeniably, women across Ireland have been subjected to horrific, state-sanctioned realities. This law is responsible for the untimely death of Savita Halappanavar, the X case, the Y case, and is accountable for the imprisonment of a pregnant suicidal teen – these are stories we know, and others we’ll never know. The Eighth amendment is entrenched with trauma.

Deafening silence has surrounded abortion care for women, girls, and their partners. Many in the lead up to the referendum have bravely shared their stories of travelling to gain access to safe abortion care, revealing the truth of healthcare extradition. Mara Clarke, founder of charity Abortion Support Network, financially aids women in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Isle of Man to gain access to abortions on mainland UK. They receive calls from Ireland on a daily basis, and from the most marginalised voices from the country.

After her own ripped condom scenario, while living in Sweden with her then-boyfriend, she gained access to the morning after pill, fuss free and uncomplicated. It had dawned on her that although legal in the U.S, funding an abortion is impossible for many. On her return to New York, she began volunteering with the non-for-profit organization Have Coalition, which supports people travelling to the city for abortions. Later resettling in England and wanting to further her work, knowing of the dire situation for women in Ireland, it took a little convincing from friend and ally Anne Quesney from Abortion Rights to see ASN created in October 2009.

It wasn’t until the volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland that really put the charity on the map, as women attempting to fly to the UK for abortion services were prevented due to mass flight cancellations. “Irish women need cash not ash” was the message that gained media attention and resulted in £2,000 raised in only two days for a 22 week pregnant 14-year-old girl who needed to get to the UK. The 85-volunteer strong Abortion Support Network last year alone heard from 1,009 individuals, totaling to £73,030 of grant money allocated to those who needed the service in 2017.

Below, Dazed speaks to Clarke about their vital work, repealing the Eighth, and the stories that stay with her.

How much emotional support can ASN give as well as financial?

Mara Clarke: None – that’s not what we are here for. We are not councillors or doctors. We have to be very clear we are not a medical organisation. If someone calls us and they say, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’m pregnant – should I keep this or should I not”, they’re not in the right place to call us, so we signpost them to the reputable family planning agencies in Ireland, which there are few.

You must hear from people who can be very isolated and vulnerable –

Mara Clarke: Not all though, and I want to make that very clear. Let me give you a spectrum: There’s a couple who you would’ve considered to be middle class who are refused a €200 overdraft, and poof, their life explodes. On the other side of the spectrum, we had a 12-year-old with no travel documents.

Abortion is a class issue – do you think it’s being represented in the campaigning?

Mara Clarke: I think it’s difficult, because I think it’s not easy to come forward with your story if you have a fatal foetal abnormality or you don’t have a support system. I hate talking about women’s stories because I feel Ireland violated them once, and then I have violated them twice, but I feel people need to understand what the true alternative is.

You’ve been tweeting a lot about the stories that keep you up at night.

Mara Clarke: They can be found on the blog called ‘The Women We Can’t Help’, and it’s pretty bad. (Once) I was on the phone with a woman who had a fatal fetal abnormality and while we were on the phone the fucking No campaign put leaflets through her letterbox.

They’re awful.

Mara Clarke: The next day, a pregnant teen from a small religious community called us and said her family would kill her if they found out she had sexual relations. So we arranged for her to come over and then her phone stopped ringing. She was so young. I hope she’s not dead.

All these stories are fuelled with trauma. How do you protect your own well being from such a emotionally demanding role?

Mara Clarke: What keeps me up are the people we don’t hear from, and also from the people we can’t help. We have mandatory meetings every 6-8 weeks and we practice self care, lots of good snacks, and hugs, and humour. We also have a volunteer who is a certified psychologist and people can contact her if they need one on one support. People can contact me too. There was a case, a year ago, where she had to have the baby – we’re still in touch. When it happened there were four other demanding cases at the time and I just broke down… it’s too much. The phone doesn’t stop ringing.

“Nobody should have to sit and tell other people their hardship of having to go to another country to have to go to the doctor” – Mara Clarke

Do you think this private and personal decision is fair to go to a public vote seeing as it’s a law that directly discriminates on gender?

Mara Clarke: No. I feel like we shouldn’t have to – nobody should have to sit and tell other people their hardship of having to go to another country to have to go to the doctor.

Women who are isolated and searching for ASN, how do they know you exist? How do you prevent rogue and anti-choice organisations from preying on them?

Mara Clarke: We really thought outside of the box so it’s not just family planning. I’m not gonna be too specific about that because Ireland has a law about speaking about abortion. One thing we are looking into is how we can reach the most marginalised, overlooked, vulnerable people, and underage teens.

Are you feeling confident for a ‘yes’ outcome and how has it been for you watching the Yes and No campaigns?

Mara Clarke: A very important thing to know is the phone isn’t gonna stop ringing after the referendum because all the ‘yes’ does is allow is the government to legislate on abortion. Ireland can no longer pretend it is an abortion-free state. It is a fact that 11 women a day give Irish addresses and it is fact that 1-5 women a day get illegal pills from the internet. Irish people have to decide if they want to get help from Irish people or to get help from England or the Internet.

You said if it’s a repeal outcome that ASN aren't going anywhere – what is the aftermath looking like?

Mara Clarke: My hope with the government would be to stick by the Citizens Assembly recommendations and the recommendation of the government that came after that. To do what we do, we have to have a lot of hope, but also have a lot of understanding of reality. There’s going to be time before the law is made where there is a lot of back and forth about what circumstance abortion is allowed. We have no idea what is going to happen. An abortion fund will still be needed. If it’s an abortion set up to 12 weeks, our estimation is that 600-700 people a year will still need to travel.

The No side dialogue uses dangerous statements like, ‘women will be using abortion as contraception’ – why do you think these misogynistic statements get so much air time? Do you think there’s an onus on women to take full responsibility for not getting pregnant?

Mara Clarke: I’m new to all this feminist stuff. Even though I started doing this in 2002, I only started doing it in the States and then I moved here. I only started saying I’m a feminist not very long ago. It’s shameful really – I never took the women’s study classes and all that stuff. I see that when you look in Ireland and Northern Ireland the majority of people, a small, small percentage of people are against abortion including if it’s to save a woman’s life. The thing is that the law doesn’t stop it and anybody that pretends the law stops it is delusional. It only stops the people who are most at risk, and that’s who we’ve always been here for.

You can donate directly to Abortion Support Network here, or purchase La Batarde sweatshirts (with all profits going to ASN) here from Items of Note