We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Dr. Deirdre Duffy from the Liverpool-Ireland Abortion Corridor Project.
As the Citizens’ Assembly turn to the ‘when’ of abortion access, many are highlighting that allowing first trimester abortion in specific cases is highly problematic. The question of access and first trimester care is complex so it is worth summarising the key problems with first trimester focused access.
Barriers to access
A central problem in the timely administration and delivery of high quality care is the existence of ‘barriers to access’. These barriers can be structural, organisational, social, or personal and are usually a combination of a number of factors which prevent those who need care from getting it. By ‘getting’ here it is vital to recognise that patients are not passive – care is a dynamic process of requesting/approaching and being given care.
Importantly for Ireland, barriers to access are not just imposed from above but are embedded in cultures of care. So removing a barrier is more complex than simply funding an abortion clinic (for example) or making abortion legal as while the clinic may exist it may not have trained staff or have staff willing to perform abortions.
Access and abortion care
In addition to questions about availability of trained professionals, financing of facilities, and proximity, abortion care has to factor in further barriers relating to abortion stigma and attitudes to abortion and women seeking abortion. As a result of abortion stigma, women may not approach care facilities for fear of repercussions. This barrier can be compounded by underlying norms and social factors both within and beyond caring institutions. If, say, a religious organisation which opposes abortion in all circumstances is placed in control of a hospital, a significant barrier to abortion care will inevitably result.
Abortion care access also needs to recognise the ‘timings’ of care-seeking and care-giving. Women may not know they are pregnant until well into the first trimester. Furthermore, health problems (foetal and maternal) become more apparent as pregnancy progresses. Acute care needs may only be detected in the second trimester or later and even then access may be limited by a lack of geographically proximate facilities.
What does this mean for a first trimester focused law?
The key problem with a first trimester law in Ireland is that barriers to first trimester abortion care are not impacted by liberalisation of abortion under 12 weeks gestation. Doran and Nancarrow’s systematic review (http://jfprhc.bmj.com/content/41/3/170.short; paywall) on barriers and facilitators for abortion care in countries where abortion is legal and the Guttmacher Institute’s regular reviews of barriers to care in the United States highlight core barriers which may not be impacted by this sort of change. These are divided into patient and provider perspectives in the table below.
|Lack of proximate services
|Lack of appointments/waiting lists
||Lack of training
|Negative attitudes of staff
||Too few physicians
|Associated costs of abortion
||Insufficient hospital resources
Synthesis of barriers to first trimester abortion care – from Doran and Nancarrow (2015)
What would this mean in practice?
If a first trimester liberalisation is instituted then the front-line of sexual and reproductive and maternity care in Ireland will need to be closely explored. As research I have already been involved in highlighted (see here: https://mcrmetropolis.uk/blog/what-happens-when-women-have-to-travel-abortion-care-and-lessons-from-ireland/) communication between services in Ireland is not consistent. There are also significant issues relating to the cultures in hospitals – particularly if the Sisters of Charity are to be given ownership of the National Maternity Hospital, the key destination for acute maternal and foetal medicine – which will not be addressed by a legislative change.