The first time I spoke to Mara Clarke, it was May 2018, and the Irish abortion referendum was the focus of our conversation. The vote was a couple of weeks away and the country stood on the brink of repealing the Eighth Amendment and effectively opening the door to legalising abortion in the country. Pro-choice campaigners had been building their case for decades; momentum was swinging their way at last.
In the shadow of this wave of momentum, women continued to quietly make their way to England from Ireland for abortions. Over 170,000 are known to have done so since 1980, often alone, often in secret. As they have been exiled and pushed from their homes, one woman has offered an outstretched hand to them for almost a decade.
That woman is Clarke, founder of charity the Abortion Support Network (ASN), but she is far less sentimental about the work she does. “Direct, practical, support, because there but for the grace of God and a credit card go I,” she says of the financial aid the charity offers to Irish women, as well as Northern Irish and those from the Isle of Man, seeking abortions in England.
And now, 10 months since our first conversation and Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth, and two months since abortion was officially legalised up to 12 weeks in Ireland, Clarke and the ASN’s time has freed up somewhat. But that does not mean they have any intention of slowing down. It seems that wherever the law denies women, and pushes them out of their own country or homes in desperation, Clarke wants to be the safety net to get them to their destination. As from February 14th, ASN has announced that they will now be offering their services to women in Gibraltar, in a move that throws a spanner in the works of this country’s fiery abortion debate.
As a reminder, the law does not allow abortion in Gibraltar except in cases of the mother’s life being at risk, and comes with a hefty potential life sentence if broken. The government put forward a draft bill in September last year, to propose where changes could be made to launch our archaic legal system somewhat closer to the 21st century (i.e. in cases where the mother’s mental or physical health is at risk or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or severe disability). But alas, Brexit and bumbling pro-life opposition keeps the advancement of female rights pretty far down the political agenda (especially in an election year).
And so enter Clarke and the ASN, a practical interim solution offered to Gibraltar’s women with unwanted pregnancies until the law catches up.
Clarke, 46, a native of Illinois, USA, has long been an abortion activist. When living in New York City in 2002, she read an article about women travelling to New York for second trimester abortions because of restrictive access in their own states and decided to offer to put them up in her home.
Cut to 2009 and now living in London, she discovered there was no longer this kind of aid for women coming to the UK from Ireland. “I was like wait a minute, if the UK Department of Health is saying 5,000 women a year are giving Irish addresses, then that means there are 500, or 50, or five women who aren’t coming because they can’t afford it,” she says. “So myself and a couple of mates said let’s do this thing.”
That idea expanded from providing a place to stay to travelling women, to offering financial aid for the procedure and travel, as well as organising appointments. That first year (from October to December) the ASN provided £300 in grants to those seeking abortions, in 2018 they gave more than £90,000. But as they have grown, the original intention of aiming to help any one person that “slips through the cracks” by offering a non-judgmental, anonymous service has remained unchanged.
Over nine years they have funded part or all of abortion and travel costs for 1,359 clients, and helped hundreds of additional women access abortion by giving them information on the least expensive methods of abortion and travel, and also provided details on the reputable online providers of safe but illegal early medical abortion pills. Their grants have ranged from £6 to more than £3,000 per client, and Clarke says the smallest amount should be just as striking as the largest: “How effing frightening it is that somebody took a £6 donation from us, and legitimately thought that if they showed up at a clinic £6 short they would get turned away – that is crazy.”
And despite their impressive numbers, removing financial barriers women face when accessing abortion is the main aim of the ASN as they enter the muggy waters of Gibraltar’s abortion debate – no matter how many or how few need it.
“We don’t have a measure of success, in that we don’t need to help a certain number of women in Gibraltar get abortions,” she explains. “I don’t care if it’s only five women that we help. Our goal is simply to be a resource for people who want abortions and can’t have them because of money. ‘I can’t afford an abortion’ shouldn’t be the only reason somebody becomes a parent.”
Abortions in Spain can cost up to £800, not including travel expenses, and numbers provided by an Algeciras clinic suggest at least 30 women a year are travelling for the procedure. The ASN’s aim is to give the option to those who don’t have hundreds of pounds in disposable income. The charity has consulted with the local Pro Choice and No More Shame groups to give them the best idea of the needs of women in Gibraltar. The service will be accessible via a helpline, in which case-by-case decisions will be made on care, be it travelling across the border or flying to the UK or even the Netherlands, where the ASN have strong links with clinics, for terminations.
As well as financial aid, the ASN is taking a different approach with Gibraltar than they have done with Ireland and areas of the UK. Because of the restrictions placed on medical practitioners when it comes to abortion advice here, the ASN will also be funding counselling services over the phone with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. She says as well as it being a financial decision, it is also just “more humane”. “For us it’s much better for people to have that before they get on a plane, have their consultation and then be like, ‘Actually, I want to continue the pregnancy,'” she says.
“It is ridiculous for the only option women in Gibraltar have is the internet [to access advice]. I think it would be irresponsible for us to offer one [abortion funding] without the other [counselling services].”
It is a move even pro-life campaigners will find difficult to argue with (though they will surely try their utmost), as the ASN attempt to offer a complete service that the Gibraltar Health Authority fails to.
Clarke and I speak (and I write this) ahead of the ASN announcing their expansion into Gibraltar, but she anticipates backlash to their cause, as “that is the nature of activism”. However, the ASN’s tongue-in-cheek press release, playing on the Valentine’s Day date of the announcement (“Roses are Red, Violets are Blue/Ireland has safe legal abortion/So we’re expanding to help Malta and Gibraltar too!”), echoes Clarke’s lack of concern towards critics.
And for those who say the service won’t work, that people don’t or shouldn’t need it in Gibraltar? Clarke replies: “I can guarantee our phone will ring.”