March for Choice demonstrator image: abd/Shutterstock
March for Choice demonstrator in Dublin, 30 September 2017. Image: abd/Shutterstock

How does abortion affect people as a workplace issue?

14 Dec 2017

We took a look at the latest report detailing how abortion impacts trade union members as a workplace issue.

As people in the Republic of Ireland gear up for the upcoming referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution – which grants equal rights to the mother and an unborn child, hence making it impossible to introduce legislation allowing for terminations bar exceptional circumstances – the topic has become a hot-button issue in all circles.

In the case of a recent study entitled Abortion as a Workplace Issue, the question of abortion has been examined in an employment context, asking trade union members about their views and experiences of abortion in the workplace.

The research was undertaken by a team made up of researchers from the University of Ulster (Dr Fiona Bloomer, Dr Johanne Devlin and Danielle Mackle), University of Liverpool (Dr Claire Pearson) and an independent researcher specialising in gender and minority communities (Dr Noirin McNamara).

The study comprises two forms of data collection: an online survey and a forum-based online discussion, both anonymised to only capture demographic information such as age, gender and religion.

A total of 3,180 trade union members from five unions (Unite the Union, Unison, Mandate Trade Union, the CWU and GMB) took part, which represents a 10pc response rate across the unions. The report explains that this is “broadly comparable to other online surveys of this type”.

The people surveyed spanned multiple sectors, including manual or factory workers; low and middle admin jobs; managerial and supervisor jobs; professionals; and those in caring or customer service industries.

Respondents in the Republic of Ireland primarily comprised those working in ‘caring/customer service’ (35pc), while much of the Northern Ireland (NI) sample was characterised as ‘professional’ (39pc).

Views on abortion

A slim majority (51pc) of those surveyed believed that people should be allowed to have abortions on request, while 9pc believed there was no circumstance that justified abortion. Though 77pc agreed with abortion “when a woman’s life is at risk”, a lower percentage (62pc) agreed with abortion “when a woman’s health is at risk”.

When broken down by place of residence, results indicate that those polled from the Republic have a more liberal attitude towards abortion. NI respondents, when viewed in isolation, would not as readily agree with abortion upon a person’s request (47pc versus 58pc in the Republic).

Abortion as a workplace issue

The second segment of the survey looked at abortion as a workplace issue. In total, 597 respondents (20pc) said that they had direct experience of “a range of scenarios related to disclosure, advice and support, time off, and sick pay”. In some cases, respondents answered and commented in reference to their own experiences of abortion while other respondents were discussing the experience of someone known to them having an abortion.

Of the respondents with direct experience, 42pc stated that the person concerned had struggled to pay for the costs of the abortion, with 23pc wanting time off but unable to afford loss of wages. One-fifth of these respondents stated that the person had wanted sick leave but could not take it, 11pc needed time off and got sick pay, and 10pc needed time off and took unpaid leave. Additionally, 28pc of these people needed time off and used their annual leave.

Of the 20pc of respondents who had direct experience with abortion as a workplace issue, 73pc indicated that the person concerned had not disclosed the abortion to anyone in the workplace.

Qualitative responses 

The online forum comments provided some qualitative data on the experience of abortion in the workplace. In this forum, people discussed either having abortions or knowing someone who had one.

For those who had an abortion themselves, many cited stigma as the reason for not disclosing the procedure to those in the workplace.

“I have had both miscarriage and an abortion while an employee, and the difference was striking,” explained a female respondent from NI in the 25-44 age bracket.

“I could tell my employer about the miscarriage and got sick leave and support, but felt there was no way I could tell my employer about the abortion. The stigma is still very strong.”

Others who had abortions stated that they hid it from people they worked with for the sake of their own mental health, fearing that fielding questions would be too mentally taxing.

Abortion as a trade union issue

Only 1pc of respondents said that they sought advice from their union representative about having an abortion. Among those who were union reps themselves, 2pc stated that they had provided advice to union members on abortion.

Some participants in the online forum pointed out that the current legal restrictions on abortion make it difficult for unions to get directly involved.

A woman in her 50s from NI advised people to be wary discussing abortion with an employer due to these current restrictions. “Abortion is governed by criminal law in Northern Ireland – the threat of prosecution is very real.”

The question of a healthcare worker’s ability to conscientiously object to performing an abortion arose. A female respondent in the 45-64 age bracket from NI recounted her experience of working as a midwife, stating that she and her colleagues “were given the choice of working with the termination patient or not”.

Another woman from NI, in the 24-44 age bracket, said: “This questionnaire fails to acknowledge the emotional impact that nurses experience when work issues represent a conflict of their beliefs.”

Conclusion? Reform is coming

The report concluded that the survey and focus group demonstrate that trade union members “are supportive of legislative reform in some form”. While members differed on their opinions in the level of access to abortion, 87pc stated they did not think people should be criminalised for having abortions.

The report also highlighted the significance of personal accounts of experience with abortion in modifying people’s espoused position. “Participants explained how knowing of/listening to people’s first-hand experiences caused them to reflect on their own position.

“This finding indicates the importance of listening to experience about abortion in any future debates, a finding that would concur with the experience of the recent Citizen’s Assembly.”

March for Choice demonstrator in Dublin, 30 September 2017. Image: abd/Shutterstock

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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