clandestine abortion

Repeating Histories: Irish and Spanish Prochoice Activism in London in the 80s and Now (VIDEO)

British, Spanish and Irish feminist prochoice collectives My Belly is Mine, the Spanish Women’s Assembly and Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. will perform a protest action on the 2nd of August in central London to raise awareness of the Spanish anti-abortion bill, known as Gallardón’s law. The bill is soon to be presented in the Spanish Parliament. The action will also officially launch the new Spanish Women’s Abortion Support Group (SWASG 2.0), which aims to provide practical assistance for Spanish women travelling abroad to terminate pregnancies, should the bill be passed. This support group is the London branch of the International Federica Montseny Network, an initiative developed by Spanish feminists in Berlin.

Abortion Support Groups in London the 80s

This is not the first time a support group such as SWASG 2.0 has operated in London. Abortion Support Network currently helps many women from Ireland to have abortions in the UK each year. Abortion has never been decriminalised in the Irish Republic, whilst in Spain, abortion on request up till 14 weeks has only been available since 2010 and is now under threat by the antiabortion bill. In the early 80s, Ann Rossiter and Isabel Ros López, Irish and Spanish activists, both helped to set up the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) and the Spanish Women’s Abortion Support Group (SWASG) respectively. In 1982, a staggering 21,000 women came from Spain to have abortions in England; over 8000 women came from Ireland, approximately 6000 of them from the Republic and the other 2000 from the six counties.

Prochoice campaigners now have the opportunity to hear Ann and Isabel explain why and how they set up the Irish and Spanish abortion support groups. The film Repeating Histories, produced by My Belly is Mine, Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A and the London Irish Feminist Network (LIFN), features Ann and Isabel in conversation at The Feminist Library. Ann remembers:

“With all these women coming… we wondered what in the hell we could do. And it’s important to say that this was very small scale. By today’s standards, things were quite primitive.”

In the film, Ann and Isabel share their experiences of volunteering in both support groups: they describe the organisation and the day to day of these support operations, how they managed to procure special deals for the women at clinics and raise funds; they tell too of the international spirit of cooperation of prochoice activists at that time. Ann also warns of the difficult decisions and financial costs Spanish women will have to bear if Gallardón’s antiabortion law is passed.

Repeating Histories: A New Wave of Irish and Spanish Prochoice Activism in London

Ann and Isabel often collaborate with Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. and My Belly is Mine in prochoice actions. Isabel is also an advisor to SWASG 2.o.  In fact, the name SWASG 2.o was chosen as a tribute to the work of Isabel and her colleagues. Not only national links are forged with this current wave of Irish and Spanish prochoice activism in the British capital, but also intergenerational ones.

For the 2 minute trailer of Repeating Histories, click here.

For the version with Spanish subtitles, click here.


Spot the Difference: Spain’s Antiabortion Bill

The numbers speak for themselves: in 1985, 17,688 abortions were performed on Spanish women in Britain. Many of these women travelled to London for the procedure. The costs were prohibitive. So what of the women that were left behind? Women without the financial means, the social networks…the wherewithal to allow them to travel to Britain? What of the women and children who had irregular migratory status, the women and girls who were victims of rape, of domestic abuse? Where did they go when abortion was illegal in Spain?

Front page of El País Magazine (1976), with a report on travelling to London for an abortion.

This is a horrifying situation in which to find oneself. And it is a situation that will be repeated if the current antiabortion bill is passed as law in Spain. Human rights organisation Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned the bill. Amnesty has stated the bill is discriminatory, retrogressive and will violate the human rights of women and girls and put their lives at risk. The organisation says:

If enacted, the Spanish draft bill will result in an increase in the number of women and girls who resort to illegal, unsafe and clandestine procedures, risking their health and lives. The bill proposes humiliating and unrealistic barriers for women and girls to overcome before they can access a legal and safe abortion.

The UK and other EU countries will most likely face a surge of Spanish women seeking abortion if the procedure is outlawed in their own country. Remember: restrictive abortion laws do not equal fewer abortions; on the contrary, when abortion is illegal, women die or they flee elsewhere. The problem is simply hidden, never resolved.

final english2

Figures taken from Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora by Ann Rossiter.

Irish and Spanish Prochoice Activism: a Shared Legacy

The Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) was established in the early 80s to assist women coming to the UK from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland seeking abortions. Much of the group’s work, which lasted around 20 years, was conducted undercover. Author and feminist, Ann Rossiter is one of the founding members of the IWASG and she documents the its history in her book Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The ‘Abortion Trail’ and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000.

Ann Rossiter’s book ‘Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora’ documents the IWASG’s history.

The charity Abortion Support Network continues with the work initiated by the IWASG, helping around 400o women from Ireland (90o of which are resident in Northern Ireland) a year to have abortions in England and Wales.

In Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, Ann writes:

About the same time as IWASG was formed, a sister organisation, the Spanish Women’s Abortion Support Group (SWASG), was set up. Both IWASG and SWASG emerged out of debates, often taking place collectively, where Irish and Spanish feminists in London decided to do something practical about the plight of abortion seekers from their respective countries. In the Spanish case, it was a response to the arrival of several hundred Spanish ‘tourists’ at London airports every week. […] in 1985 there were 17,688 abortions performed on Spanish women in Britain […].

From 1981 until 1984, IWASG and SWASG worked together from the same office. There were two part-time paid members of staff dedicated to abortion support work. Iris Lyle, a Spanish speaking-woman from Northern Ireland, recalling her experience as a member of these groups, says:

Many of the women [abortion seekers] didn’t know any English and required help with more or less everything. […] The Spanish women would be very upset over the great secrecy, all the scheming they had to do. They were in a terrible state. When the abortion was over, it was like a great wight was lifted off them.

Isabel Ros López, a Spanish feminist who came to the UK in 1978, also did both Irish and Spanish abortion support work. Isabel explains:

If a woman was ringing us out of the blue without having consulted a doctor or counsellor in either Ireland or Spain, we would provide a full service for her, including arranging accommodation, whether in a B&B or with an IWASG or SWASG member. […] We would then book an appointment for a consultation and counselling at the clinic.

Isabel adds that due to the covertness of abortion support work, the IWASG was referred to by the codename Imelda. Indeed, the Irish government had implemented a ban on information in 1987. By using the codename, women could seek help and information about abortion without fear of being prosecuted.

Why is all this relevant to My Belly is Mine as a campaign?

Firstly, Ann Rossiter is still campaigning for abortion rights in Ireland today. Furthermore, Ann is now part of Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A., a direct action feminist performance group that seeks to challenge the ongoing problem of Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion. The “Imeldas” often collaborate with My Belly is Mine, thus thirty odd years after the foundation of the IWASG and SWASG, Spanish and Irish women continue to work together on prochoice campaigns.

Ann Rossiter, one of the founders of IWASG, at a My Belly is Mine protest on 1 Feb, 2014.

Ann Rossiter, one of the founders of IWASG, at a My Belly is Mine protest on 1 Feb, 2014.

Isabel Ros López is also still an activist. Naturally, Isabel is deeply concerned by the Spanish government’s recent proposal to ban abortion. Having closely witnessed the times during which abortion was illegal in Spain, Isabel has been able to provide guidance to the members of the Spanish Women’s Assembly on how to provide support and assistance to Spanish women seeking abortion in London, should the antiabortion bill be passed as law. Isabel has also been a speaker at a number of My Belly is Mine protests too.

Active in the 80s, Isabel thought Spain would never return to the days of backstreet abortions

Isabel Ros López at the joint protest organised by My Belly is Mine and the Spanish Women’s Assembly at the Spanish Embassy, London on 27 June 2014.

It is under worrying circumstances that young Irish and Spanish women in London today have found they have a shared history.

If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the IWASG and the SWASG, Ann’s book is the best source of information. We will be writing more about the SWASG, its work and its relationship with the IWASG in upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, click here for an interview with Ann Rossiter.

Protest at the Spanish Embassy, London

Yesterday, 27th of June, 2014, My Belly is Mine, in collaboration with Irish prochoice activists Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A and the Spanish Women’s Assembly from the 15M movement, protested at the Spanish Embassy in London against the antiabortion law that the Partido Popular are attempting to pass in Spain.


We congregated with around 70 supporters in front of the embassy and read out the following joint statement in English and Spanish:

We have come together at the Spanish Embassy in London to protest the regressive antiabortion law that will soon enter the Spanish parliament. And we are not alone! Prochoice campaigners stand shoulder to shoulder with us today at this very moment in time in Berlin, Vienna, Lisbon, Marseille, Lima, Montevideo, Florence, Paris, Reggio Calabria, Bordeaux, Madrid, Las Palmas, Coruña, Murcia, Alicante, Almería, Cáceres, Barcelona, Ourense, Pontevedra, Santiago de Compostela, Tenerife, Vigo, Oviedo, Valencia and many more will be protesting over the next few days. We are the majority and we know that we are on the side of democracy and human rights.  
Bea from the Women's Assembly reads the joint statement in Spanish.

Bea from the Women’s Assembly reads the joint statement in Spanish.

Just as we knew would happen, the Spanish government has waited until the summer holidays to pass the new antiabortion law, as quietly and as surreptitiously as possible. In a week, the bill begins its parliamentary process to eventually become law: it will be a law that means no Spanish woman will be able to make decisions regarding her own body and motherhood. 
Cristina, from My Belly is Mine, reads the joint statement in English.

Cristina, from My Belly is Mine, reads the joint statement in English.

This law is even more reactionary than the one passed by the socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez in 1985. It takes Spanish women’s rights back to the time of Franco, to the time of clandestine abortions for the poor, lonely trips to London for those who had the money or managed to scrape the money together and forced motherhood for those who don’t have the strength or time for lengthy and tortuous bureaucratic procedure. This is a law that nobody asked for. A law that the overwhelming majority of Spanish citizens said they did not want.
There has been one tiny concession by the Spanish government: fetus abnormality will now be accepted as a reason for termination. With this concession, the government wants us to believe that it is willing to engage and negotiate.  We are under no illusion. We see this fascist government for what it is. We know that even in the case of fetal abnormality, women will be subjected to humiliating medical bureaucracy intended to show them that they are not allowed to decide what happens to their own body.
The Spanish Women’s Assembly, My Belly is Mine and Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A have come together to protest this law from the United Kingdom. We are proof again of the historic solidarity that has existed between British, Irish and Spanish women. British women have always welcomed both Irish and Spanish women onto UK soil for their terminations. Irish and Spanish activists fought together in the 80s just as we are doing today. We are well aware this law is not just a result of the Spanish right or the Spanish Catholic Church, but in times of austerity, women’s rights are always eroded, and they are forced into the role of housewife and mother. This happens to women everywhere, not just in Spain. 
We are going to protest all this summer in London. We are distributing leaflets with our contact details. We are also taking down email addresses. Please join us to oppose this law. We must show the Spanish government that we will not allow this law to pass without opposition. They may use their majority in parliament, but we will use our majority on the streets to fight tooth and nail to defend the rights of women. 
Isabel Ros López, an activist who was a key member in the Spanish Women’s Abortion Support Group (SWASG) also spoke, stating “this law is simply about control over women and their bodies”:
Active in the 80s, Isabel thought Spain would never return to the days of backstreet abortions

Active in the 80s, Isabel thought Spain would never return to the days of backstreet abortions


Isabel is living proof that we can never take our rights for granted. Indeed, the SWASG assisted women from Spain during the 80s who came to London to seek abortion. Furthermore, SWASG collaborated with the Irish Women’s Support Group (IWASG).

Comedian, activist and vice-chair of Abortion Rights, the UK campaign for abortion, Kate Smurthwaite also showed up to support our campaign and addressed the crowd. In her speech, Kate reminded us that the opposite of abortion is forced pregnancy, a cruel and perverse form of punishment:

Comedian and activist, Kate Smurthwaite addresses the crowd.

Comedian and activist Kate Smurthwaite addresses the crowd.


The crowd then faced the embassy to chant:

Chanting  facing

And finally, we crossed the street to get our pictures taken in front of the embassy: