How Brexit ended abortion access for Europe’s most marginalized

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Last year, 24-year-old Alessia became pregnant. She comes from Malta, where abortion is prohibited, but she had to terminate her pregnancy. She knew you could order abortion pills online, but she was terrified of the consequences of getting caught. Desperate, she found she could travel to the UK to have a safe surgical abortion up to 24 weeks into her pregnancy, giving her time to save money and plan the trip.

But then she realized she needed a passport to travel to England, because of the new rules after Brexit. Malta is part of the European Union, so Alessia used to rely on freedom of movement to travel and had never needed it before. In addition, a passport costs €70; an expedited one was double the price.

Eventually, Alessia contacted the Abortion Support Network (ASN), a UK-based charity that helps people access safe abortions. She managed to travel to Spain, where the legal limit is 14 weeks and the cost of the procedure is higher, to have a termination just in time.

Alessia is one of many European citizens whose access to abortion has been severely restricted by Britain’s exit from the European Union. On October 1, 2021, UK immigration rules changed: anyone visiting the UK from outside the Common Travel Area, even for the shortest duration, must now have a passport.

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Before Brexit, thousands of pregnant women traveled from the EU to clinics, mainly in London, Liverpool and Manchester, using national ID cards, to take advantage of the long abortion delay (24 weeks) in England, in Wales and Scotland. Brexit changed that for good.

“Most of our customers [in Poland] don’t have a passport,” said Mara Clarke, founder and director of ASN, which has helped more than 700 Polish women end unwanted pregnancies between 2019 and 2021. It is “impossible to get a expedited passport,” she added.

Clarke said the formal rule changes cemented a clear trend since 2016, the year of Britain’s Brexit referendum: “Almost immediately after [the referendum] we noticed that it was almost impossible for us to obtain visas for people, whatever the circumstances. This completely changed the way ASN works. “We send the majority of our customers to the Netherlands now,” she told me.

This is backed up by UK Department of Health and Social Care figures, which show an 80% reduction in ‘non-resident’ abortions in England and Wales between 2016 and 2020 (Scotland figures are distinct).

In 2016, 4,810 people traveled to England and Wales for abortions, followed by 4,633 in 2017 and 4,687 in 2018. In 2019, that number dropped to 2,135 before plummeting to 943 in 2020 due to additional Brexit and COVID complications. -19 travel restrictions.

Irene Donadio from the European branch of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights, explained: “The new Brexit requirements to have a passport plus visas plus COVID tests act as barriers and increased costs for women in desperate need of abortion care.

Mainland Britain and abortion

Why was mainland Britain previously such an important haven for people in need of abortions?

The key factors are the relatively strict deadlines and uneven arrangements that exist across Europe. In France, the non-exceptional limit for abortion (when there is no risk to life or health and the pregnancy is not the result of rape) is 14 weeks. In Italy and Germany it is 12. Abortion bans in Malta and Poland mean that women are forced to travel abroad (at their own expense).

The supply in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, despite the very famous legal changes, remains patchy at best, and the number of weeks of pregnancy a person can have a surgical or medical abortion is just 12. weeks – assuming you can find a hospital to perform the operation.

For later abortions in particular, the British mainland was a crucial destination. For European migrants in Ireland, geographical proximity has made it possible to make the trip in one day, saving on accommodation and childcare costs. But the decision to no longer allow travel with EU ID cards has completely closed this window.

The poor and marginalized suffer the most

Unsurprisingly, it is the poorest and most marginalized women who are the most affected. Passports cost money, which immediately creates a financial barrier to access. Racism also plays a role, particularly for those traveling from Ireland by ferry: ASN reports that racial profiling during “randomized” immigration checks makes this journey particularly dangerous for people of colour.

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