IRELAND NORTH AND SOUTH – The changing landscape of abortion care: embodied experiences of structural stigma in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

by Kathleen Broussard

Social Science & Medicine 2020(January);245. Article 112686  (Not open access)


The private use of abortion medication outside of the formal healthcare setting is an international phenomenon. Despite new and expanding pathways to abortion access, we know little about how women’s perceptions and experiences of abortion may also be changing. This study examines the embodied experience of 68 women who sought abortion services in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Social stigma and restrictive abortion laws were major barriers to care at the time of study, providing the opportunity to explore the ways biological, social, and structural factors shape embodiment. Those who obtained an abortion either travelled abroad for clinical care or self-managed a medication abortion at home. Participant’s perceptions of pain, the fetus, the method (medication vs. surgical), and environment in which they sought abortion care (at home vs. in a clinic) were shaped by structural stigma. Women gained greater experiential knowledge through medication self-management, allowing them to relate abortion to other natural bodily processes and redefine their beliefs about pregnancy and the fetus. Preferences and attitudes about the environment of abortion care were informed by stigma and differential perceptions of risk. Those who travelled most often emphasized legal and medical risks of abortion at home, while those who self-managed emphasized social, financial, and emotional risks of pursuing clinical abortion care abroad. Given the increase in reproductive self-care alternatives, these findings situate self-managed abortion in the literature of (de)medicalization and reveal the ways technology and structural factors shape perceptions and beliefs about pain, the fetus, method, and environment. For some, self-managed medication abortion may be a preferred pathway to care. Policies that consider medication self-management as part of a spectrum of legitimate options can improve abortion access for marginalized groups while also offering an improved abortion experience for those who prefer medication abortion and an out-of-clinic environment.

PHOTO: © Simon Graham, Amnesty International, Euronews, 24 October 2019