“I am pregnant, and I need to terminate this pregnancy,” explains Shipra*, a 19-year-old international student studying in Ireland. “I have already booked an appointment with a UK clinic but need a visa because I am from India.”
Shipra ended up waiting so long for her visa that the cost of her procedure increased dramatically to £1310. She was forced to reach out to a charity to pay the fee and borrowed money from a friend to cover the expensive Covid-19 tests required to travel at the time.
She’s not the only one whose journey to the UK for abortion care was impeded by immigration and health restrictions. In fact, new figures from the Department of Health and Social Care last month show that access to abortions for non-residents of England and Wales has fallen by 87% since 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum and when abortion was still illegal in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In 2016, 4810 people travelled to England and Wales for an abortion, followed by 4,633 in 2017 and 4,687 in 2018. In 2019, that number fell to 2,135 before decreasing again to 943 in 2020.
Many blamed Covid-19 travel restrictions for this collapse in provision but new figures show that even fewer (613) people travelled in 2021 as travel restrictions eased, prompting concern about a more permanent shift.
“Covid-19 was just one more obstacle for our clients,” explains Mara Clarke, Director of the Abortion Support Network, an organisation that helps people from across Europe travel for abortions. She attributes the collapse in the provision of non-resident abortions to four key changes since 2016: Brexit, Covid-19, liberalisation of abortion laws, and funding challenges in England.
Clarke mostly helps people travel for abortions in their second trimester as early medical abortions (up to 12-14 weeks) are legal across most parts of Europe, except for certain countries, including Poland and Malta. The UK has historically been an important international safe harbour for these later-term abortions as the law allows women and others who can get pregnant to have abortions up to 24 weeks, although they still have to provide ‘grounds’ for abortion to exempt them from the criminal code. The only other country in Europe that even comes close to this is the Netherlands, where abortion in hospitals for international patients is legal for up to 22 weeks.
Brexit has seriously complicated Clarke’s job: “As of [October 2021] you need a passport to come into England so that knocks out many low-income people in Europe who have European ID [cards] and not passports.” Even before this change, Clarke says it has been “virtually impossible to get a visa to the UK since the Brexit vote.”
“There’s so little on-request access to second-trimester abortion in Europe that we are in a bind when we have clients who are too late for the Netherlands and don’t have a passport,” Clarke tells GLAMOUR.
And, she says, second-trimester abortions are usually required in more precarious situations: “The people who present late tend to be young girls, peri-menopausal women, wanted pregnancies that become unwanted, people escaping abusive relationships and migrants, refugees, member of the Irish traveller community.” All of these groups may be less likely to have their own passports, and if, like Shipra, they are not UK or EU citizens, they must buy an expedited passport and/or apply for a visa.