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Making a drama out of a crisis

Irish Medical Times, 16th February 2011

Responding to news of the seizure of more than 1,000 abortion pills by the IMB, Dr Juliet Bressan examines the issue from the perspective of those facing into a crisis pregnancy.

Last year, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB) seized more than 1,200 abortion pills that had been imported into Ireland illegally. On January 10 this year, they successfully prosecuted a woman who had imported Mifepristone to sell to other women. What does this mean? Who are these 1,200-plus women whose parcels and packages have been steamed open by customs, in a giant Stasi-like operation to bust the importation of reproductive products into Ireland? They are our sisters, daughters, mothers, cousins, neighbours, colleagues, friends. They are our wives, our students, our lovers, our grannies, our bosses, our partners, our patients.

Up until the 1980s, many Irish doctors were afraid to provide contraception illegally. Gynaecologists certainly did not. Patients sneaked around backstreets to Family Planning Clinics where doctors worked illegally to provide contraceptive pills to women who weren’t married, women who didn’t want more kids, women who were suffering the indignity of complete powerlessness in reproductive health.

Contraception pioneer
Dr Andrew Rynne was one of these doctors. In 1978 he performed 414 illegal vasectomies. The local parish priest called to his house to tell him about the mutilating effects of vasectomy, and of the immorality of his behaviour.

Pioneer: Dr Rynne wrote to the DPP to admit he was breaking the law

In 1983, Dr Rynne wrote to the DPP and told him that he was breaking the law and selling condoms directly to his patients at weekends, when the local pharmacist was closed. The DPP sent the police around. A Garda Sergeant arrived at Dr Rynne’s surgery, so he handed over samples of condoms and receipts and anything else that the police needed to secure a conviction. Dr Rynne was then fined 500.

I have no doubt that the Irish Medicines Board believes that it must do whatever is necessary to protect the citizens of Ireland from the mutilation of self-induced abortion, and from any possible side-effects that an abortion might cause: heavy vaginal bleeding, cramping pains, dizziness, weakness, nausea or infection.

And I have no doubt that in the not-too-distant future we will regard the ban on abortion in Ireland and the punishing effect that it has on women in the same light that we regard our shameful history of a ban on contraception, on divorce, on homosexuality and on the movie The Life Of Brian as an extraordinarily reactionary and regressive law that creates nothing but hardship and embarrassment.

Ireland has already been found guilty in the European Court of Human Rights of neglecting women’s reproductive health. I have no doubt that in the future we will regard the current abortion law and those who defend it in the same light in which we now regard the Magdalene Laundries.

Court cases
I feel ashamed that the Irish State is still treating women as criminals, marching them through the courts rather than providing legal reproductive healthcare here. Abortion pills aren’t lethal, bizarre, illegal drugs that cause horrendous side effects: they are legally available in the country just next door to us.

Mifepristone and Misoprostol are internationally regarded as the treatment of choice, the first-line remedy for first trimester abortion as they are safer in all studies than surgical intervention. These pills are licensed drugs and used widely here for other indications. They are used in Irish maternity hospitals.

In a country where erectile dysfunction seems to have become a national emergency, these abortion pills have a large demand. If the IMB seized 1,216 of them last year, that means 1,216 women who were sitting, desperately waiting for their package to arrive, were left waiting while the gestation of her crisis pregnancy was made later and later.

What did those women do instead? What did 1,216 women do when their pills never arr-ived? What follow-up did they receive?

Doing its job
I’m just this one writer and I have no argument with the IMB. The Board is doing its job. But many good doctors and nurses and counsellors up and down the country are holding women by the hand, offering sound medical advice, making themselves available by phone in case of emergencies — in other words, supporting women who have chosen illegal abortion  — because they care about their patients and what happens to them after the pills arrive.

They are compassionate professionals and they are not going to push these women away and into a situation where they receive no medical care at all.

Most of the women who are ordering on-line abortions are poor: they do not have the money to pay for an abortion abroad.

Many are illegal immigrants with no ability to travel.

Others are drug addicts, students, homeless women, women with no money, no means, no hope. They are all in utter despair. One day, we will look back and cringe, and ask ourselves, what kind of country were we in 2011, that a woman had no other choice than to sit down, on her own, in front of a computer, desperately praying that the customs officials didn’t get to her first?

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