Two years after abortion was legalised on the island, there is a lack of information and sign-posting for women seeking to access the service and there are still women being forced to go off island for abortions.
The Social Affairs Policy Review Committee, chaired by Onchan MHK Julie Edge, asked for opinions on the abortion service as part of a review of how the law has been implemented.
After reviewing the evidence submitted to them, the committee said that three of the submissions all touched on the same concerns, a lack of sign-posting and information on the services. However, one woman said that having accessed the system, the staff who run the clinic were exemplary and made her feel at ease.
One woman who wrote to the committee said she had an abortion in March 2020. She said she was ‘absolutely terrified’ to discover she was pregnant and had ‘no clue’ how to access an abortion on the island. The woman added: ‘I called my GP surgery for an urgent appointment, which my female GP pointed me directly to the abortion clinic, up the GUM Centre at the IOM hospital.
‘My anxiety was through the roof with it being lockdown and hearing past rumours I’d have to travel to the UK. The main doctor who dealt with me and my abortion was utterly amazing, it was done with little appointments up the hospital. She gave me many options and so much support and help. Never once did I feel ashamed or embarrassed. The team were amazing and I am truly grateful for the help I managed to get on the island, especially in the beginning of a pandemic.
‘So thank you for the law changes and island support, even after care for my health.’
However Lynn Dawson, a member of the Campaign for Abortion Law Modernisation told the committee she was aware of ‘several cases where the service has not operated as it should’ which she said she had raised with Health and Social Care Minister David Ashford.
She added: ‘As of this week, I have discovered the following.
‘There are no leaflets available explaining the service, what is available and how to access it. We were promised that such leaflets would be distributed to GPs, Pharmacies, Health Clinics, counselling services and women’s centres. As far as I am able to establish, no such leaflet even exists.
‘There are no posters available. In my GP surgery there are posters on relationship counselling, grief counselling and every kind of support group imaginable, but nothing for a woman wanting an abortion who might be too terrified to ask the receptionist because she knew her from school.
‘A google search for the service brought up information from the Abortion Reform Network and CALM giving the telephone number, but nothing from the Isle of Man department of health which is supposed to be running the service. It is utterly shocking that more than a year down the line, nobody has bothered to ensure that this has been done.
‘The telephone number is not listed on the page devoted to Women and Children’s Services. The telephone number is not listed on the family planning page. A search of the department page showed that the number is available in a news item from May 2019 but has not been added to any of the services that women might try to access it through.’
Ms Dawson said these issues showed a ‘truly shocking indictment of the Isle of Man Department of Health and its treatment of women’.
And added: ‘After all the discussions and debates about how important it was to ensure ease of access for women who might find it difficult or embarrassing to approach their doctor, it is almost unbelievable that not a single government minister has followed up on this and insisted that the department of health properly publicise this service to make it easy for women to find. Covid is not an excuse for this, the service came online months before the pandemic closed down the health service on the island.
‘I sincerely hope that this review is taken seriously, and some oversight is put in place to ensure that the department does not brush this under the carpet again. Personally, I am deeply disappointed with the people involved.’
Kate Lord-Brennan MLC also submitted evidence to the committee, saying that ‘despite the branches, especially the House of Keys, agonising over the timescales, that is the stage in pregnancy where the bill seeking to legalise abortion, there was absolutely no regard given as to how realisitic, appropriate or achievable this would be in terms of on island provision’. Mrs Lord-Brennan said that the bill ‘effectively overreached in legislative terms what could/should be carried out on island’.
She also told the committee that she was aware of a teenager who had to travel off island for an abortion shortly after the law was changed and that there were always going to be limitations as to what can be done on island. And the MLC claims that, in her view, ‘the goal was to pass the law and achieve accolades for that’ rather than examining in greater detail how it would work in practice.
The committee’s final conclusions in its short report said that while the members welcome the implementation of the Abortion Reform Act 2019, ‘we conclude that there is a compelling need for significantly better public information on the availability in the island of abortion services’.
It added: ‘At the very least there should be leaflets and posters in GPs’ surgeries.’
Get asked the gov how women can go about accessing the service, which is self referral. A spokeswoman said that naturally some women will see a healthcare professional first, such as their GP, a midwife, GUM, hospital outpatients, and they will be advised to phone the helpline number, which goes straight to the British Pregnancy Advisory service, BPAS. A telephone consultation is then held where a decision is made as to which pathway the woman will follow.