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Accessing abortion care as a disabled individual

Updated: May 30, 2022

Mental health blogger and journalist Katie Alexander discusses abortion care in the UK

CW: discussion of abortion, the impact of abortion and pregnancy

(Photo by Jasmine on Unsplash)

[Image: a woman stands with a black and white sign on grass that reads "my body, my choice"]

by Katie Alexander

Your disability should not define your ability to access vital healthcare.

With the looming threat of Roe v Wade being overturned, discussion around abortion care is heavier, and more contested, than ever. It’s important to acknowledge how difficult it can be for some to access abortion care even when it is legal, as it is here, writing from the UK. Across the pond, abortion has been legally available since 1967, or 2019 if you live in Northern Ireland.

At the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, healthcare services were pushed to the max, and this included abortion care. It's not always bad news. After dedicated lobbying, the government finally agreed to introduce telemedical abortion services as a result of Covid-19.

This allowed all individuals seeking an abortion, before 10 weeks of gestation, to remain at home. Instead of traveling to a clinic to pick up abortion medication, this could now be sent to the homes of people seeking abortions everywhere. Thankfully, this legislation has now been made permanent.

Despite this, there are ongoing issues with accessing abortion care. For one, this legislation only supports those who are having extremely early terminations. Anyone looking to have an abortion after 10 weeks of pregnancy would still need to travel to a clinic or hospital. This poses problems for a variety of different people, but especially for disabled individuals.

Disabled individuals need abortion services

Disabled individuals should be able to access the same range and quality of sexual and reproductive health services. However, their rights in accessing services are far too often not considered. Some of these barriers could be broken down by removing toxic assumptions about disabled individuals’ sex lives.

As a result of these assumptions, disabled individuals can often be denied vital education and information regarding sex and contraception. Sarah Salkeld, Associate Clinical Director at MSI Reproductive Choices UK, goes on to highlight that disabled individuals continuously “face limitations on reproductive choices through failures to make necessary services and contraception options most suited to their needs and conditions accessible to them.”

It’s also important to note that, according to figures from Public Health England, disabled individuals in England experience twice the rate of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and stalking than non-disabled people.

Moreover, disabled individuals accessing abortion care can often find themselves further stigmatised. While I would argue that the UK is a largely pro-choice nation, there are still huge issues with anti-abortion protests. These largely take place directly outside of abortion clinics with an aim to block access to the clinic.

Selkeld goes on to tell me of the experiences some disabled individuals may face from these anti-abortion protests:

“Tactics like blocking access to the clinic can be especially harmful to people with mobility issues. We have heard of incidents where Disabled people are specifically targeted by anti-choice groups too, such as being told they should be anti-abortion because they ‘could have been aborted’ themselves.”

Traveling to an abortion clinic can be challenging

While one in three people will have an abortion in their lifetime, just how easy is it to have an abortion? Those seeking abortions will often face challenges, depending on the gestation of their pregnancy.

Government statistics show that nearly 90% of all abortions in the UK take place before 10 weeks of gestation. By 2020, anyone looking for care before 10 weeks of pregnancy should have a relatively easy experience as they can legally access remote services. However, beyond this point, things get more patchy.

When planning to have an abortion, some individuals will be lucky enough to live relatively close to a provider. Unfortunately, this is not true for everyone, especially for those looking for terminations within the second and third trimesters.

In some cases, pregnant people could be forced to travel to larger cities and towns to access care. This is extremely difficult for individuals who are disabled and perhaps cannot drive - or can but have fluctuating conditions that can not always guarantee this on a specific day. For disabled individuals who cannot use remote services, there is a chance they would begin to miscarry on their journey home. Understandably, this is a traumatic experience for anyone.

Individuals who have learning disabilities face an extra layer of challenges. Getting to an appropriate clinic for your needs is made harder by a lack of accessibility measures on public transport and throughout medical facilities. On top of that, disabled individuals still have to consider everyday barriers such as taking time off work or arranging childcare for any existing children.

Emotional support for disabled individuals

People are able to feel as if they have made the right decision for them and experience grief.

I think there’s a huge misunderstanding and misjudgment of people who have abortions. These individuals have chosen to terminate their pregnancies - and people go on to think that this makes their emotions public property. Protesters forget that they are still people. People who are allowed to experience emotions after having an abortion.

Choosing to end your pregnancy does not necessarily make you immune to any negative thoughts and feelings you may have about your decision. That is not to say that there are not overwhelming levels of relief. People are able to feel as if they have made the right decision for them and experience grief. They are not separate and often go hand in hand.

These kinds of negative emotions can be triggering for both neurodivergent individuals and mental health struggles. Those who suffer from poor mental health may already be processing and dealing with many tough emotions. Adding the emotional strain of terminating a pregnancy should not be something we take lightly, and aftercare is important.

It’s important to remember that beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy, abortion is only legally available in certain circumstances. They can be carried out beyond 24 weeks if the pregnant person’s life is at risk or if the foetus would be born with a severe disability.

These kinds of diagnoses can often be difficult to understand. While medical professionals try to explain diagnoses, they have to do so very medically. After a personal experience with a fatal foetal anomaly myself, I know it can be difficult to understand what is happening to your pregnancy.

There’s a long road ahead...

I think far too many people assume accessing abortion care is easy. And, for the most part, it is - for non-disabled people at least. Unfortunately, the terms laid out in the 1967 Abortion Act are still causing distress to so many who are trying to access abortion services across the country.

However, it’s not all bad news! Thankfully, there are some brilliant abortion services already up and running that is dedicated to improving services for all. MSI UK has recently introduced an online chatbox that clients can use if they are hard of hearing or anxious on the phone. This also has an exit button that removes an individual from their website and clears their search history automatically.

These kinds of innovative features are vital in ensuring vulnerable groups can access abortion care safely when they need it.

If you are looking for abortion services or support, do not hesitate to speak up. You deserve to be heard as loudly as everyone else does. Your disability should not define your ability to access vital healthcare.

Katie Alexander is a journalist and blogger running her own blog website

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