AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This May, Ireland plans to hold a referendum on whether to legalise abortion. It's currently banned there, even in cases of rape, unless the life of the mother is in danger. But every year, thousands of Irish women find a way to get an abortion abroad. NPR's Lauren Frayer has this story about a network of volunteers that shuttles Irish women over international borders and into abortion clinics.
TARA FLYNN: Please, come in.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: At her home in Dublin, actress Tara Flynn recalls how 12 years ago she learned she was pregnant. It was not planned.
FLYNN: I was 37. I was single. I wasn't working very much, and I didn't want to be a parent.
FRAYER: She didn't want to have a baby and give it up for adoption either. Only since 2013 has abortion been allowed in Ireland if the mother's life is in danger - otherwise, it's totally banned. But Flynn found a way.
FLYNN: I had a credit card, so I was lucky to be able to travel. Many people can't. As soon as I had had a few days to live with my decision, I booked a flight.
FRAYER: Irish women get abortions at about the same rate as other Europeans, but they have to travel to other countries for it. To help them, there's a sort of modern-day underground railroad discreetly shuttling thousands of Irish women to abortion clinics. Flynn flew to the Netherlands, but most go to the U.K.
ZOE DUNFORD: I will do the right English thing and offer them a cup of tea.
FRAYER: Volunteer Zoe Dunford (ph) is one of those who hosts Irish women at her home in London.
DUNFORD: I set up a bed in the corner of my sitting room here and make them dinner. A lot of them do really want to chat about anything else apart what's going to happen.
FRAYER: Two summers ago, two Irish women drew attention to this exodus when they live-tweeted their abortion journey to the Irish prime minister. Critics say Ireland's abortion ban disproportionately hurts poor rural women who can't easily travel overseas.
MARA CLARKE: The people who we deal with are quite poor or marginalized or at risk, and they very often don't have support networks.
FRAYER: Mara Clarke is an American expat in London who runs the Abortion Support Network. It's modeled on a U.S. group that helps women access abortion there.
CLARKE: You could call it an underground railroad. I prefer to think of it as sisters doing it for themselves. The majority of our work is done by volunteers, and all of our funding comes from private individuals.
FRAYER: U.K. abortion clinics offer discounts to women traveling from jurisdictions where the procedure is banned. But it still costs several hundred dollars - plus plane or ferry tickets, accommodation, time off work. Polls show a majority of Irish voters will vote this spring to allow abortion on request up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole says even voters who are uncomfortable with abortion may choose to acknowledge practical realities. He spoke to me on Skype.
FINTAN O'TOOLE: Do people cling onto a principle - this constitutional ban on abortion, which many people still like. Or do they say look. We can't go on pretending that, you know, uniquely in the world, we don't have women terminating their pregnancies when the only overwhelming evidence is that they do.
FRAYER: Even if the ban is lifted, it could be some time before Irish women can get an abortion in their home country, says Clarke, the network organizer.
CLARKE: So first the referendum will have to pass. Then they're going to need to create legislation. How many doctors in Ireland know how to perform an abortion? And how many would be willing to? How many protesters are going to be parked outside?
FRAYER: She says the stigma attached to an abortion in Ireland may last longer than the legal restrictions. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.