Visible Women

Meet the activist who’s helped thousands of Irish women access safe abortions

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we meet Mara Clarke, the founder of the Abortion Support Network, to discuss how things have changed since Ireland’s abortion referendum. 

Mara Clarke was in Dublin when the results of the Irish abortion referendum were announced. The founder of the Abortion Support Network (ASN) – a grassroots organisation that provides women with advice and financial aid so that they can access safe terminations – desperately hoped abortion would be decriminalised in Ireland. But she didn’t really think it would happen.

“When the exit polls came out, I didn’t believe it,” she says today. “Even when the results were officially announced, I still didn’t believe it. But then everything went crazy.”

For nine years, the ASN has helped women in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man – all places where abortion is illegal or severely restricted – end unwanted pregnancies. The organisation does this predominantly by providing judgement-free, informed answers to practical questions: what is the cheapest way to fly from Cork to England for an abortion, for example? Is it more expensive for a woman from Northern Ireland to terminate a pregnancy in Manchester or Bristol? Is it ever possible to fly from Ireland to England without a passport? (Yes, is the answer to that final question – on some airlines.)

Even with this information in their arsenal, many of the women and pregnant people who come to the ASN cannot afford an abortion. A termination in an English clinic can cost between £110 and £1,365 for someone from Ireland, and that’s before travel and accommodation expenses are taken into account. (Northern Irish women are now able to access abortions free on the NHS in English clinics.) In these situations, the ASN offers monetary grants.

“We exist because ‘I can’t afford an abortion’ shouldn’t be the only reason somebody becomes a parent,” Clarke says. “We do this because we know that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop it – it just means that only women with money have options.”

Pro-choice campaigners protest in London in favour of legalising abortion in Northern Ireland

In the ASN’s very early years, the group simply didn’t have the funds to help everyone who contacted them. Gradually, they reached a point where they didn’t have to turn women away, but were only able to offer small sums towards the cost of an abortion. “We’d say things like, skip your rent for a month, or return the kids’ Christmas presents, and [with our assistance] you’ll be able to afford it,” Clarke says.

Now, though, the ASN hasn’t turned anyone away since 2012, and over the years the group has offered grants ranging from £8 to £3,000 in value. Clarke says she finds the £8 grants “more terrifying”. “Can you imagine?” she says. “Somebody actually thought they wouldn’t be able to get an abortion because they were £8 short.”

Occasionally, a woman will need somewhere to stay overnight if she’s travelling from Ireland, Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man for an abortion in an English city. When this arises, the ASN will match them with a local network supporter who is happy to host them. Clarke is aware that the idea of feminists putting roofs over the heads of women in need is “romantic”, but says that most of the ASN’s clients don’t actually want to spend the night in a well-meaning stranger’s home.

“An abortion takes five or 10 minutes if the pregnancy is under 19 weeks,” she explains. “Most women who have abortions already have kids, and they want to go home. At the end of the day, after you’ve had a medical procedure you just want to be under your own duvet.”

Women celebrating in Dublin as the results of Ireland’s abortion referendum were announced on 25 May 

Clarke is originally from the States, and first got involved in abortion rights activism after a spell living in Sweden. One day, she and her Swedish boyfriend (“I had to have a Swedish boyfriend because that’s the law, right?” she laughs) needed the morning-after pill, and Clarke was stunned at how accessible and affordable it was compared to in the US. Back in New York, she began volunteering at – and later became a co-director of – a non-profit called the Haven Coalition, which connects people travelling to the city for abortions with supportive, free accommodation.

Years later, she moved to England, and asked around to see if there were any similar groups she could get involved with. When she couldn’t find any of the kind she was looking for, she decided to set up her own, providing accommodation and support for Irish women. “When we say that we opened with a handful of volunteers and a bucket of change, we’re not exaggerating,” she says. But gradually, word spread and money trickled in, enabling them to help more and more women. (The ASN relies solely on donations from supporters.) To date, the network has provided advice and aid to over 4,600 clients.

Clarke is very clear: all of the women who come to the ASN are vulnerable or marginalised in some way, because these are – inevitably – the women who can’t afford or access safe abortion. But she’s keen to stress that the circumstances that make someone unable to access abortion are not necessarily the ones you’d expect. She cites the example of a middle-class Irish couple with three older children, who ran into unexpected financial problems just before the women found out she was pregnant. “They went to the bank to get a 200 euro overdraft to come to England, and they were turned down,” Clarke says. “Suddenly, they’re living in a disaster.”

She has endless stories like this – like the one about a woman who’d never taken drugs in her life, but went out and scored heroin when she became pregnant in the hope it would make her miscarry (Clarke warns sternly that this does not work). She emphasises that she is not “scaremongering”, but merely highlighting the reality of life for non-wealthy women in countries where abortion is restricted.

A woman holds a sign at the celebrations of the eighth amendment being repealed

It’s now been a little over three months since the repeal of Ireland’s eighth amendment, which banned abortion in all but the most extreme circumstances. Today, Clarke’s joy at the referendum result is tempered by a pragmatic cynicism about how long it will actually take for women to be able to access safe, legal, free abortions in Ireland.

“On the one hand, the fact that Ireland repealed the 8th amendment is incredible,” she says. “So many people worked so hard, and I think it is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing.” She compares it to how she felt when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. “[It was] just the feeling that oh my god, this has finally happened,” she says. “But from a practical standpoint, literally nothing has changed.”

Ireland’s president is expected to sign the abortion referendum bill into law imminently, and the country’s government has said that Irish women will be able to access abortion services by January 2019. But Clarke is sceptical it will happen that quickly. (The ASN is still regularly supporting Irish women with unwanted pregnancies.)

“We don’t even have a law yet, and it’s September,” she says. “So we have four months to pass the law and to find people who will actually do the abortions.” The subject of whether anti-abortion medical staff should be allowed to ‘conscientiously object’ to carrying out the procedures is still being fiercely debated in Ireland, and there’s also been no word as to whether abortions will be free under the new law.

“I am always an optimist, and I have faith in humans,” says Clarke. But, she adds, she will judge Ireland’s abortion provision on the basis of when the country’s women stop calling the ASN.

As a result of Clarke’s work, she regularly hears from women who are vulnerable, desperate and petrified; who are going through some of the most difficult experiences imaginable. How does she maintain her resilience and positivity? (It must be said that she is a wonderful interviewee – warm, passionate and quick to laugh.)

“I mean, sometimes it’s really hard,” she says slowly. “You think you’ve heard the worst case possible, and then you hear about a worse situation. One week it seemed like all of our clients were pregnant as a result of rape, and there was another week when three of our clients had abusive partners who destroyed or hid their photo ID so they couldn’t travel. In those cases, it’s hard not to get on a plane yourself, grab the person, hug her and bring her over.

“But most of the time, we can help people,” she says. “We can’t help them with all of their problems, but we can sure help them with this one. And [the ASN team has] a lot of humour and a lot of compassion. We’re a group of people who just genuinely admire each other.

“Also,” she adds, “I have a punching bag in my shed. And that’s cheaper than therapy.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of Mara Clarke / Getty Images