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The Isle of Man and abortion - a very Northern Ireland debate

The Isle of Man's 'medieval' laws deny women access to basic medical care and force them into secrecy and shame. Ahead of elections later this month, a new campaign being fought on similar lines as to that in Stormont aims to bring about reform, writes a special correspondent.

Abortion rights have been in the spotlight in recent years. It can't have passed anyone by that Irish women - north and south - struggle to access basic reproductive healthcare. But on an often overlooked island a few miles closer to the UK mainland, women are also being endangered by restrictive legislation on abortion. The Isle of Man seems to be the island that feminism forgot.

But not anymore: a group of Manx women are fighting for their right to choose to terminate unwanted pregnancies. The Campaign for Abortion Law Modernisation (Calm) wants to bring Manx law in line with the UK. The Termination of Pregnancy (Medical Defences) Act is up for review in the next parliament and the feeling on the island is that the time is ripe for a long-overdue change.

Beyond offshore tax avoidance, the TT motorbike race and Mark Cavendish's Olympic successes, the Isle of Man rarely makes the headlines. A Crown dependency, the Isle of Man is part of the British Isles, floating in the Irish Sea between Liverpool and Dublin.

Manx citizens can travel to the UK for healthcare that can't be provided on the island, such as cancer treatment, neurological surgery and even complicated antenatal care. The NHS on the Isle of Man foots the bill. Abortion is one of the few exceptions.

The campaign was only set up a few months ago and despite the strides that Calm has already made, abortion is still a very taboo subject on the island.

"We are calling on Tynwald (the island's parliament) to amend and modernise the Termination of Pregnancy Act, core sections of which are unacceptably restrictive," Calm spokeswoman Sam Morris says.

"Women and families are suffering due to a two-tier system that means, if you have money, you have choices." Women without access to hundreds - if not thousands - of pounds at short notice have fewer options.

Last year, more than 100 women travelled to the UK from the Isle of Man for a termination, although the numbers are thought to be much higher as many women do not give their real address to the clinic. Including travel and accommodation, the procedure typically costs upwards of £1,000 and women have to make the arrangements themselves.

The island's Termination of Pregnancy Act allows for abortions in specific circumstances - rape, incest, mental health and severe foetal abnormalities - but in reality it is almost impossible to access on the island.

I spoke to a number of young women among my own circle (I don't live on the island, but am married to a Manx man) for this piece. Most of these liberal, middle-class women know somebody who has "gone away". One who herself had to cross to the UK for a procedure while in her teens describes the current law as "vile".

"Lots of my friends have had to go away," she says. "It is a lot more common than people think. The statistics are definitely wrong. I personally know a number of women who have had abortions and not given their correct details, so wouldn't be registered in the official figures."

The Termination of Pregnancy (Medical Defences) Act is up for review in the next parliament, though as low priority, and not until 2018 - for now. Calm are hopeful that Tynwald will pass more progressive legislation. The Manx Chief Minister, Alan Bell, has made comments in support of a change to the law.

Sadly, however, there is opposition to such progressive sentiment on the island. Another group campaigning for quite a different change in the law was launched this month.

Humanity and Equality in Abortion Reform wants to see abortion even further restricted.

Abortion is now firmly on the political agenda on the Isle of Man, but change isn't expected any time soon; the island moves at its own pace.

In the meantime, hundreds of women will continue to be let down at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Rebecca's story: ‘The doctor wasn’t very nice... he just told me to Google what to do’

When I had my first abortion in early 2013, aged 17, I had just left college and didn't have a job. I was young and a bit stupid and wasn't using contraception. I didn't think twice about terminating the pregnancy as I knew it was the right decision, but I felt so ashamed of not wanting to stay pregnant. I was really nervous about going to the GP - he was our family doctor and even looked after my mum when she was pregnant with me. It's such a small world here.

The GP wasn't very nice. He said that he didn't believe in abortion and that it was illegal on the Isle of Man, so told me just to Google what to do, or look on the NHS website.

Thankfully, my mum was great and organised everything. She booked the procedure at the Marie Stopes clinic in Manchester and came with me when I was nine weeks along. It was okay, but it felt a bit like a conveyer belt. My mum paid for it - it was £1,000, but the guy who made me pregnant would only give me £200. It is so unfair that it is always the women who have to face the financial consequences.

I went to the family planning clinic after I came back and they made me feel so ashamed and stupid, and basically forced me to get a contraceptive implant. Despite this, just months later, I became pregnant again. I didn't see the point in going back to the GP.

The guy I was dating then was older than me. I tried to be mature about it, but he was so awful and didn't support me at all, just told me I had to have an abortion. I didn't want to do that again and I didn't know how I would afford it.

My mum ended up having to pay for the termination again because my boyfriend wouldn't give me any money. Three years later, I am glad that I didn't have a baby, but I do want to be a mum one day. I really hope that speaking out will help change the law, because women who want to have abortions will always find a way."

Emma's story: ‘We hadn’t much choice... it was the worst day of my life'

When you are told to go for a walk and come back in for a chat after your 20-week scan, you know that you aren't about to get good news. Though at that point, I didn't realise just how bad it was going to be. "We have some concerns about your baby," they said.

I was upset, my partner and I both were, but I was adamant everything was going to be fine. We were advised to seek a second opinion in the UK. We were cautiously optimistic, although we knew already that it would be unlikely that our daughter would ever be able to walk. But it quickly became apparent that things were worse than we feared.

We were told that our daughter wouldn't be able to swallow or breathe without help and would likely have severe learning difficulties. They were quite candid and told us that most parents in our position would choose to terminate the pregnancy.

You might wonder why I wanted to know the sex after getting news like that, but I just needed to hear something lovely rather than something awful and scary.

We did look seriously at the option of palliative care but we were advised that if we didn't subject our daughter to surgery as soon as she was born, there was a risk that the hospital would do it anyway and argue it later in court.

We didn't want to put her through all those operations and so we felt like we didn't have much of a choice but to terminate. The NHS on the Isle of Man funded it. I was one of the handful of women who meets the criteria. It was the worst day of my life.

I was sent to the UK to have the procedure to terminate the pregnancy and then came back to the Isle of Man to deliver her that day. I could have delivered her in the UK, but I wouldn't have been able to bring her body back and having a funeral was really important to us.

I wasn't sure where I stood on the abortion issue before this happened. I certainly didn't think I would ever terminate a pregnancy. My eyes have really been opened now and I don't think it is my place, or anyone's place, to tell women what they should do in whatever circumstances they find themselves in.

  • Names have been changed

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