Ireland abortion referendum: close result expected in historic vote

The people of Ireland are voting on Friday in a historic referendum on whether to repeal or retain a constitutional clause protecting the rights of the unborn that has produced one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world.

Polling stations across Ireland opened at 7am and close at 10pm. At 6.55am in Dublin, voters were already waiting in the entrance of Our Lady’s Clonskeagh Parish secondary school.

Ruth Shaw, who was second in the queue, had changed a flight to New York so she could cast a vote, accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter Simi. “Its really important [to be here],” she said. “I’ve got two daughters.”

The outcome of the vote, expected to be close following a polarised and often acrimonious campaign, will either confirm Ireland on its journey from a conservative Catholic country to a socially liberal one, or indicate that social reforms over recent decades have reached their limit.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach, has said the referendum is a “once in a generation decision”. If the proposal to repeal the constitutional clause is defeated, it is likely to be at least 35 years before voters get another say on the matter, he said this week.

At stake is article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution, known as the eighth amendment. In place since 1983, it puts the “right to life of the unborn” on an equal status with the life of a pregnant woman. It underpins a near-total ban on abortion in Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.

Seeking or providing an abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. There has been an exception for when a mother’s life is at risk only since 2013, when a woman died from septicaemia following a drawn-out miscarriage.

As a result of the stringent controls on abortion, each year about 3,500 women travel abroad, mostly to the UK, to terminate their pregnancies – and an estimated 2,000 women illegally procure abortion pills online and self-administer them with no medical supervision.

My budget flight to get an abortion: the story no one in Ireland wants to tell – video

If the vote is in favour of repeal, the government plans to introduce legislation permitting unrestricted abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions up to the 23rd week will be permitted when a woman’s health is threatened and in cases of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Voting has already closed on some of the islands on the west and south of Ireland, with 2,151 people entitled to vote yesterday on the Donegal, Galway and Mayo islands and another 460 voting in the Cork islands.

Counting will begin on Saturday morning, with the final result expected to be formally announced in the late afternoon. However, the outcome may be clear earlier as results come in from key constituencies. Dublin is expected to be strongly yes-voting, and rural areas more inclined to vote no.

Campaign literature is officially banned in polling stations, but at least one person had come to Our Lady’s Clonskeagh Parish school wearing a yes badge hidden under her sweater, a symbolic tribute to the campaign she supported.

Aisling, 31, came just as the polls opened to cast her vote for yes before going to the gym. “I really don’t know [which side will win],” she said. “It’s very divisive and probably no is a bit controversial, a lot of people won’t speak out [if they are voting that way].”

The votes of thousands of Irish expatriates travelling home to take part in the referendum could be significant. Some reported on social media that they were coming from as far away as Los Angeles, Australia, Vietnam and Argentina in order to cast their votes.

Lauryn Canny tweeted:

Lauryn Canny (@LaurynCanny)

I’m coming #HomeToVote ! Will be traveling 5,169 miles from LA to Dublin and will be thinking of every Irish woman who has had to travel to access healthcare that should be available in their own country. Let’s do this, Ireland! #repealthe8th #VoteYes pic.twitter.com/fZDxUIGrs9

May 23, 2018

Colette Kelleher tweeted:

Colette Kelleher (@ColetteKelleher)

My lovely son is coming #hometovote. This poor student used his birthday money to buy plane ticket home. Just messaged me “we will get you to the Emerald City on Friday” ❤️ He will #voteyes with his Dad. For his sister, his Mum & women of Ireland #togetherforyes @Men4Yes

May 22, 2018

The latest opinion polls indicate a majority for repeal, although undecided voters – estimated at between 14% and 20% of the total – could hold sway. Two polls published this week showed small increases in the yes vote, with one putting it at 56% and another at 52%.

One poll also used a technique known as “wisdom of the crowds”, asking people to estimate the result of the referendum. The outcome was 56-44% in favour of yes.

Private polling for Fianna Fáil, whose parliamentary representatives are divided on the referendum, is believed to predict a similar outcome.

Friday’s referendum comes three years after Ireland became the first country in the world to back same-sex marriage in a popular vote, confirming a profound shift in Ireland’s social attitudes. Twenty years earlier, Ireland voted by the tightest of margins in a referendum to allow divorce, which was previously banned under the constitution.

Changes in social attitudes have been in lockstep with the declining influence of the Catholic church, once the dominant voice in Ireland and a crucial player in the drive to add an abortion ban to the constitution.

But revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up by priests in recent years have shaken Ireland’s faith in the church, and the internet and social media have challenged the authority of the pulpit.

Although 78% of the population still identified as Catholic in 2016, the proportion is significantly smaller among people under the age of 35. Between 1972 and 2011, weekly church attendance fell from 91% to 30%. In Dublin, it dropped to 14%.

Meet the people fighting to keep Ireland’s abortion ban – video

Social media has been an important battleground for both sides of the campaign. Earlier this month, Google announced a ban on all ads relating to the referendum and Facebook announced that it was blocking all foreign referendum advertising.

But there has also been an intense ground battle, with campaigners for both sides canvassing door-to-door, holding public rallies and meetings, and handing out leaflets on the streets in an attempt to win over undecided voters.

The yes campaign has focused on the argument that abortion is a reality for thousands of Irish woman, but the constitutional ban merely exports the issue at huge emotional, physical and financial cost to a woman in a crisis situation.

The no campaign has repeatedly said “extremist” legislation would follow repeal. In fact, the government’s proposals would bring Ireland into line with most of Europe.

How can we make healthcare a better place for women to work? Live event

The NHS is the UK’s biggest employer, with a workforce of of 1.7 million people across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, 77% of whom are women.

While healthcare is seen as a good place for women to work, many in the sector feel there is a glass ceiling. Despite women making up more than three-quarters of all NHS staff, they are still in the minority in senior roles. Healthcare professionals have also raised concerns about whether it is possible to strike a good work-life balance.

The Guardian is hosting a discussion and networking event to consider how to make healthcare a better place for women to work.

The event will take place at the Guardian’s London offices from 6pm on Thursday 12 July. Our panel of speakers will debate, among other things:

  • Is there a glass ceiling in the NHS? If so, what is causing it?
  • What are the barriers to flexible working and why do these disproportionately affect women?
  • Are women underrepresented in any roles or specialisms? What is being done to bring women into these professions?
  • Could employers do more in terms of professional support and mentoring to ensure women develop in their careers?
  • What are the benefits to the NHS and patients in being a more representative employer at all levels?
  • Do women need to leave the NHS to fulfil ambitions in healthcare? Are there employers beyond the NHS that are able to be more flexible?

The event is aimed at healthcare professionals – men and women – and while it is free, please be aware that space is limited. If you’d like to attend, please fill in the form below. Those who have been successful will receive an email to confirm their place.

The panel

Samantha Jones, director of the new care models programme, NHS England
Dido Harding, Baroness Harding of Winscombe, chair, NHS Improvement

Further panellists and discussion chair to be announced

Programme

6pm-6.45pm: Attendee arrival, registration, refreshments, networking

6.45pm-6.50pm: Chair’s welcome

6.50pm-7.40pm: Panel discussion

7.40pm-7.55pm: Audience Q&A

7.55pm-8pm: Chair closing comments

8pm-8.45pm: Networking and mentor partnering

8.45pm: Event ends, goody bags handed out

Ireland abortion referendum: close result expected in historic vote

The people of Ireland are voting today in a historic referendum on whether to repeal or retain a constitutional clause protecting the rights of the unborn that has produced one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world.

The outcome of the vote, expected to be close following a polarised and often acrimonious campaign, will either confirm Ireland on its journey from a conservative Catholic country to a socially liberal one, or indicate that social reforms over recent decades have reached their limit.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach, has warned that the referendum is a “once in a generation decision”. If the proposal to repeal the constitutional clause is defeated, it is likely to be at least 35 years before voters get another say on the matter, he said this week.

At stake is article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution, known as the eighth amendment. In place since 1983, it puts the “right to life of the unborn” on an equal status with the life of a pregnant woman. It underpins a near-total ban on abortion in Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.

Seeking or providing an abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. There has been an exception for when a mother’s life is at risk only since 2013, when a woman died from septicaemia following a drawn-out miscarriage.

As a result of the stringent controls on abortion, each year about 3,500 women travel abroad, mostly to the UK, to terminate their pregnancies – and an estimated 2,000 women illegally procure abortion pills online and self-administer them with no medical supervision.

My budget flight to get an abortion: the story no one in Ireland wants to tell – video

If the vote is in favour of repeal, the government plans to introduce legislation permitting unrestricted abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions up to the 23rd week will be permitted when a woman’s health is threatened and in cases of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Polling stations across Ireland open at 7am and close at 10pm. Counting will begin on Saturday morning, with the final result expected to be formally announced in the late afternoon. However, the outcome may be clear earlier as results come in from key constituencies. Dublin is expected to be strongly yes-voting, and rural areas more inclined to vote no.

The votes of thousands of Irish expatriates travelling home to take part in the referendum could be significant. Some reported on social media that they were coming from as far away as Los Angeles, Australia, Vietnam and Argentina in order to cast their votes.

Lauryn Canny tweeted: “I’m coming #HomeToVote. Will be travelling 5,169 miles from LA to Dublin and will be thinking of every Irish woman who has had to travel to access healthcare that should be available in their own country. Let’s do this, Ireland!”

Colette Kelleher tweeted: “My lovely son is coming #hometovote. This poor student used his birthday money to buy plane ticket home … He will #voteyes with his Dad. For his sister, his Mum & women of Ireland.”

The latest opinion polls indicate a majority for repeal, although undecided voters – estimated at between 14% and 20% of the total – could hold sway. Two polls published this week showed small increases in the yes vote, with one putting it at 56% and another at 52%.

One poll also used a technique known as “wisdom of the crowds”, asking people to estimate the result of the referendum. The outcome was 56-44% in favour of yes.

Private polling for Fianna Fail, whose parliamentary representatives are divided on the referendum, is believed to predict a similar outcome.

Friday’s referendum comes three years after Ireland became the first country in the world to back same-sex marriage in a popular vote, confirming a profound shift in Ireland’s social attitudes. Twenty years earlier, Ireland voted by the tightest of margins in a referendum to allow divorce, which was previously banned under the constitution.

Changes in social attitudes have been in lockstep with the declining influence of the Catholic church, once the dominant voice in Ireland and a crucial player in the drive to add an abortion ban to the constitution.

But revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up by priests in recent years have shaken Ireland’s faith in the church, and the internet and social media have challenged the authority of the pulpit.

Although 78% of the population still identified as Catholic in 2016, the proportion is significantly smaller among people under the age of 35. Between 1972 and 2011, weekly church attendance fell from 91% to 30%. In Dublin, it dropped to 14%.

Meet the people fighting to keep Ireland’s abortion ban – video

Social media has been an important battleground for both sides of the campaign. Earlier this month, Google announced a ban on all ads relating to the referendum and Facebook announced that it was blocking all foreign referendum advertising.

But there has also been an intense ground battle, with campaigners for both sides canvassing door-to-door, holding public rallies and meetings, and handing out leaflets on the streets in a bid to win over undecided voters.

The yes campaign has focused on the argument that abortion is a reality for thousands of Irish woman, but the constitutional ban merely exports the issue at huge emotional, physical and financial cost to a woman in a crisis situation.

The no campaign has repeatedly warned that “extremist” legislation would follow repeal. In fact, the government’s proposals would bring Ireland into line with most of Europe.

Ireland’s abortion decision: a photo essay

On Friday Ireland will vote in a referendum that could in effect end the ban on abortion. Voters will be asked if they want to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution, which recognises the equal right to life of mother and unborn child.

Every year, 3,000 Irish women travel overseas, usually to the UK, to end pregnancies, including those caused by rape or incest. Expectant mothers diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities – meaning the baby may die before full term or is not expected to live for long – must also travel to the UK for terminations.

Graffitti artist Shirani Bolle paints an image of Savita Halappanavar, who died after doctors refused her an abortion in 2012

  • Graffitti artist Shirani Bolle paints a mural of Savita Halappanavar, who died after doctors refused her an abortion in 2012.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis after miscarrying her daughter, after doctors refused her an abortion. Her death shocked Ireland and brought new awareness and energy to the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment.

Some of the amendment’s consequences have been unexpected: women lose autonomy over their bodies as soon as they become pregnant, and because doctors have an equal responsibility to foetus and mother, many discourage home births. Ireland has the lowest rate of home births in Europe.

For Caitriona Kenny, from Dublin, whose mother was forced to adopt her son, a home birth was a rebellious act against the state’s control of her body.

Catriona Kenny gives birth to her son, Tom

  • A rebellious act: Catriona Kenny gives birth at home to her son, Tom, while her two-year-old daughter, Nora and husband, Derek, look on, in Dublin. Right: Catriona feeding Tom after the birth.
Catriona Kenny breastfeeds her newborn son after giving birth at home in Dublin

For many voters in favour of retaining the current laws, opposition to abortion is not a question of women’s rights but rather of equating termination of pregnancies with murder. They believe a repeal of the eighth amendment as a retrograde step for human rights.


My grandmother was bound to the Catholic church by guilt learned in childhood and the thrill of forgiveness

Olivia Harris
Megan Scott, a repeal campaigner, dressed as Saint Brigid, patron of Ireland, in Dublin

  • Megan Scott, a repeal campaigner, is dressed as Saint Brigid, patron of Ireland, on Dublin’s main shopping street.

Ireland, once described by Pope Paul VI as “the most Catholic country on earth”, has undergone a massive change in the past 30 years. Its moral authority has been damaged by a series of scandals, including the compulsory servitude of young unmarried mothers by nuns and the forced adoption of their babies. The discovery of the remains of babies in sewers at Tuam monastery in 2017 as well as clerical child abuse scandals have made headlines around the world.

Students buoyed by the international women’s movement call for greater autonomy over their bodies at a protest in Dublin

  • Students buoyed by the #MeToo international women’s movement stage a rally calling for the state to grant them greater autonomy over their bodies.
Giant figures called Cassandras wait to parade through Limerick in a silent appeal to residents to repeal the eighth amendment

  • Artist Alice Maher uses reflective discs on the heads of figures called Cassandras to represent what she sees as society’s hypocrisy.

Despite the recent scandals engulfing the Catholic church, Irish identity is bound up with the religion. First Holy Communion remains a rite of passage for girls in Ireland, despite the falling attendance of weekly mass from 63% in 2002 to 48% in 2010.

New mothers, aged 18, share a joke after learning how to put on condoms

  • New mothers, aged 18, share a joke after learning how to put on condoms at a sex education class run by the Brook sexual health clinic.

Although the church’s influence has waned, it retains control over sex education in almost all Irish schools.

A man shows off tattoos of his children on a hot day in Dublin

  • A man shows off tattoos of his children on a hot day in Dublin.
Catholic students carry a statue of Mary, mother of Jesus

  • Catholic students carry a statue of Mary as part of a co-ordinated nationwide prayer on Ireland’s beaches to keep abortion out of Ireland.

Ireland legalised contra­ception in 1985 but some people believe it is an offence against God and nature.

The Irish Catholic church has asked followers to work actively to reject any change to abortion laws. Devotees have held prayer vigils at “mass rocks”, historic sites at which priests held services in secret when Catholicism was suppressed by the British.

A woman kisses a statue of Mary

  • A woman in Carlingford kisses a statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, after a nationwide prayer to save the eighth amendment, in March.
An anti-abortion campaigner recites the Eucharist with a priest at the summit of Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in County Mayo, on 26 August 2017.

  • An anti-abortion campaigner recites the Eucharist with a priest at the summit of Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in County Mayo, on 26 August 2017.

In 2017, two crisis pregnancy centres with links to anti-abortion groups were investigated after reportedly telling women that abortion causes breast cancer and infertil­ity, contraception was dangerous and that women could die from having sex.

And yet Irish public opinion is moving away from its past. In 1992, homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland; in 2015 it became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by referendum. The country now has an openly gay prime minister, Leo Varadkar, a former GP.

The rosary of the unborn, designed by the Ohio-based organisation Holy Love

A prop used by pro-life campaigners to show pregnant women considering abortion the size of a foetus in the womb

  • The Rosary of the Unborn, designed by the Ohio-based organisation Holy Love, for sale in Knock. Right: A prop used by anti-abortion campaigners to show pregnant women considering abortion the size of a foetus in the womb.
Andrea Horan, who owns a nail bar, wears a Repeal the Eighth badge

  • Andrea Horan, who owns a nail bar, wears a Repeal the Eighth badge. She encourages her technicians to wear repeal T-shirts.

During the 1983 referendum a bucket of pig’s blood was poured over a pro-choice campaigner and verbal abuse was exchanged on the streets. This time campaigners have been more restrained. The repeal jumper, now symbolic of the campaign, was the first quiet call for a change to the law. A flurry of performance art, embroidered banners and T-shirts followed in an attempt to encourage discussion on the subject.

Women dance in repeal jumpers

  • Women dance in repeal jumpers, now symbolic of the campaign.

All photographs by Olivia Harris, supported by the International Women’s Media Fund.

Irish pro-choice campaigners recount #HomeToVote journeys online

Whether it is boarding 13-hour flights or thanking the strangers that have funded their journeys, Irish citizens are sharing their stories on social media as they travel home from all over the world to cast their ballot in the country’s historic referendum on abortion. The hashtag #HomeToVote has been used across social media channels by supporters of repealing the 8th amendment as they converge in Ireland to cast their votes.

Many were visibly displaying their support through clothing and badges, and noticed support for the campaign on the way. One supporter, who flew home to canvass and vote, tweeted that his flight attendant was wearing a ‘Tá’ – the Irish for yes – badge on his flight.

IO for Yes // May 25th (@iarlaoh)

The flight attendant checking my ticket on the plane #hometovote this morning was wearing a “Tá” badge. :)

May 20, 2018

Not everyone found that fellow travellers understood the significance of their journey, however, and felt it echoed the experience of the women who have to travel abroad for abortions under the present constitution.

“Boarding a 13-hour flight from Buenos Aires to London. London to Dublin tomorrow. No one at airport knows what my repeal jumper means. No one here knows why I’m travelling. If this feels isolating for me, can’t imagine how lonely it must be 4 her, travelling 2 the UK,” tweeted Ciaran Gaffney. He also posted an image of himself in his repeal jumper in Buenos Aires

The 13 hour flight I’m about to take hasn’t got a patch on the 1hr flight that your sister, your friend, the girl on your street, your mother, your employer, your colleague, your employee, your girlfriend or any of the women of Ireland might have to take today, or had to take yesterday, or have had to take in the past 35 years. Let’s stop this cowardly act of exporting this issue to our neighbouring countries, and let’s #repealthe8th!

Senior Tory tells May any NHS funding increase worth less than 4% could be ‘disastrous’ – Politics live

In an article in this week’s Spectator Fraser Nelson, the magazine’s editor, and James Forsyth, its political editor, claim the government is planning to announce a 3% increase in NHS spending around the time of its 70th anniversary in July. They say:

[Simon Stevens, the NHS England chief executive] is about to get what he demanded. Theresa May plans to give the NHS a present, ahead of its 70th birthday in July — a settlement of 3% extra a year, which would mean that by the next election NHS spending would be £350 million a week more than it is today. This means, much to [Philip] Hammond’s rage, that the famous Brexit bus pledge is to be honoured — though not of course with money saved by leaving the EU.

Stevens, ever wily, now wants the figure to be closer to 4%, and for the next decade. Hammond, a political realist, has accepted the case for giving significantly more money to the NHS. But the Treasury prefers an increase of around 3% and for five years, not ten. Nor has Hammond agreed that this sum ought to be dressed up as an NHS birthday present.

According to the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, this increase has not yet been agreed, and there is talk of the increase in NHS spending being as low as 2% a year.

But even if the Spectator is right, and 3% is on the cards, May has been told this morning that this would not be enough. In fact, Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP and GP who chairs the Commons health committee, suggested on the Today programme that any increase less than 4% could be “disastrous”. She said:

The difficulty would be if [the government] make a funding announcement that is way below expectations, I think that would be disastrous. The figure we are hearing touted today, of 3%, that simply wouldn’t be high enough.

If we look at the long-term average since the start of the NHS, that’s been around 3.7%. And what we are hearing very clearly from today’s report is that we need a longterm average of 4%, and if possible more in the short term, to make up for the eight long years where we’ve had the longest squeeze in the NHS’s history.

By “today’s report”, she was referring to the report (pdf) from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Health Foundation saying the NHS needs a funding increase of around 4% just to secure “modest improvements”. We’ve splashed on the report.

Paul Johnson (@paul__johnson)

Cost of NHS that can cope:
-£2k tax every household.
The choice
-Tomorrow’s Guardian pic.twitter.com/0hXt6iHEE8

May 23, 2018

And here’s our story.

On the Today programme Wollaston said that a 3.3% increase in NHS funding (what the Specatator says is being planned) would just be enough to “stay where we are”. She went on:

If we want to improve services, we’re looking at 5% in the immediate few years, and 4% as a longterm average. And I think the government should look very seriously at these figures.

She also said she thought the public would be willing to pay more in tax to fund an increase in NHS spending.

Wollaston’s demand for a 5% increase in spending in the short term echoes what the IFS/Health Foundation report says. Here is an extract from the news release summarising its findings. (Their bold type, not mine.)

To secure some modest improvements in NHS services, funding increases of nearer 4% a year would be required over the medium term, with 5% annual increases in the short run. This would allow some immediate catch-up, enable waiting time targets to be met, and tackle some of the underfunding in mental health services. This would take spending in 2033–34 to 9.9% of national income, an increase of 2.6% of national income relative to 2018–19.

At the same time, pressures on social care spending are increasing and, if we continue with something like the current funding arrangements, adult social care spending is likely to have to rise by 3.9% a year over the next 15 years taking an extra 0.4% of national income, relative to today.

Put these figures together and health and social care spending is likely to have to rise by 2–3% of national income over the next 15 years.

I expect there will be more on this as the day goes on. But there is a lot else around, including Brexit developments.

Here is the agenda for the day.

After 10.30am: Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, will make her weekly business statement. She is expected to announce when MPs will debate the Lords amendments to the EU withdrawal bill.

11am: Jeremy Corbyn gives a speech at Queen’s University, Belfast. As Pippa Crerar and Jessica Elgot report, he will call on Theresa May to reconvene the British-Irish intergovernmental conference, set up under the Good Friday Agreement, to help restore the power-sharing government to Northern Ireland.

1pm: The Commons Brexit committee publishes a report on the Brexit negotiations.

4.15pm: Philip Hammond, the chancellor, gives a speech at the European Business Summit in Brussels.

As usual, I will be covering breaking political news as it happens, as well as bringing you the best reaction, comment and analysis from the web. I plan to post a summary at lunchtime and another in the afternoon.

You can read all today’s Guardian politics stories here.

Here is the Politico Europe round-up of this morning’s political news from Jack Blanchard. And here is the PoliticsHome list of today’ top 10 must reads.

If you want to follow me or contact me on Twitter, I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

I try to monitor the comments BTL but normally I find it impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer direct questions, although sometimes I miss them or don’t have time.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter.

The disability system is blocking people like Jaki from their benefits – literally | Frances Ryan

If you want a symbol of Britain’s benefit system, Jaki would be it. The 36-year-old spent her 20s in Essex grafting – taking on any job to provide for her four children, even shelf-stacking for 60 hours a week. By 25, she started to get sick – the joint condition Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and the constant pain of fibromyalgia, on top of epilepsy – until she could barely walk.

Watching her life change was hard. “It’s like a grieving process for the person you could have been,” she says. But it was the welfare state that helped her get by: when she started to need a mobility scooter, the council adapted her two-bed bungalow – a wet room so she could wash, with lowered kitchen surfaces to help her cook – while disability benefits meant she could pay the bills for her and the kids when she had to give up work.

Then, exactly a year ago this month, Jaki was summoned to Colchester for “reassessment” – a two-hour round trip from her home in her scooter, to prove she was still disabled enough to keep her benefits. When she got there, she found herself staring up at the building: the entrance had a 5in step and no ramp. The slightest jolt in her scooter means pain for Jaki; each bump of the road shoots a spike up her spine. Besides, her scooter engine won’t lift her up the step – even if she holds her breath and rams it, the wheels just spin futilely.

A film-maker looking to document this decade’s punitive “welfare reform” might reject such an image as lacking subtly: a person with disabilities literally blocked from her benefits because the test centre isn’t accessible for wheelchairs.

And yet, for Jaki, it’s all too real. Forced to go home, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told her she’d have to go to another assessment centre, this time miles away in Chelmsford – easy to get to if you’re healthy but if you can’t walk or drive, an ordeal. It’s an hour in a scooter to the train station, one change, and then another trek across town to the benefit centre, Jaki explains. “My scooter battery would run out by the time I got there.”

Unable to physically get to either assessment building, Jaki was promptly found fit for work “in her absence”. “Logic that Kafka would be proud of,” she sighs. That was August 2017. She hasn’t had a penny of her disability benefits since.

Look through piles of Jaki’s paperwork as she begs for help and it’s like reading a cruel game: the DWP ask her why she’s failed to attend her assessment, and in ink she writes, in block capitals: “I keep telling you … because I can’t get in the building.”


A deaf man in Southend-on-Sea told me he was sent to an assessment building where the only entry was through an intercom

That our disability benefit system is broken is now beyond doubt. A government committee finds assessors so incompetent they ask a claimant with Down’s syndrome when they “caught” it. Whistleblowers leak that private companies are offering £50 “incentives” to assessors to squeeze extra tests into their day, while local papers run yet more stories of people being found “fit for work” just before they die.

But what’s happening to Jaki is perhaps the ultimate sign of a warped social security system: disabled people refused benefits because their disability means they can’t physically get to their assessment.

Jaki’s is not an isolated incident. In 2016, research by the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK into personal independence payments (PIP) found that two in five people with disabilities were being sent to an assessment centre that wasn’t accessible. I’ve since become aware of evidence that this has continued over the last two years for both of the government’s flagship disability benefits.

A wheelchair user in East Sussex who contacted me was sent to a centre that had only one assessment room on the ground floor; because there were “too many wheelchairs”, all but one person was sent home. A deaf man in Southend-on-Sea told me he had been sent to an assessment building where the only entry was through an intercom. When he eventually got inside, a booking error meant the interpreter left before the assessment was over.

A friend of Jaki’s, Ali, who uses a wheelchair, was also told to attend her assessment at either Colchester or Chelmsford benefit centre this year – and promptly found “fit for work” when she couldn’t get into the building. The 48-year had her benefits reinstated only when she repeatedly asked her local MP to intervene. Ali’s petitioning the minister for disabled people to make the test centre accessible, and is unflinching about what’s going on: “This is deliberate. They know they’re inaccessible appointments. They know we can’t access the building.”

I asked the DWP if it knew how many centres being used by them for disability benefit assessments aren’t fully accessible for disabled people, and the department had no comment. I asked if the DWP whether there had at least been any improvement since the 2016 research and it had no comment.

Instead, the department said it is committed to ensuring “everyone gets a fair assessment”, adding that all their centres meet “legal accessibility requirements” and that disabled people can arrange to meet at more accessible sites nearby or ask for a home visit. But ask Jaki and the reality may as well be a parallel universe. A home assessment is like gold dust, and isn’t considered without a GP letter; at £25, without her benefits, Jaki couldn’t afford one. As she got more desperate, she asked the DWP to agree to do her assessment in multiple locations; a different test centre, the local jobcentre, and even the Colchester centre’s car park. She was refused each time.

For almost a year, she has had only her Personal Independence Payments to live off – barely £300 a month – and the bills are lining up. Debt collection letters flood through the door; Jaki owes £800 to the water company alone. She’s lost five stone since her benefits were stopped. The three vouchers she’s eligible for from her local food bank were used up “long ago”, she says. She is so malnourished that she has developed mild scurvy. Parts of her teeth have broken off because her gums are so weak.

Six weeks ago, Jaki attempted suicide. It was her son’s 16th birthday and she couldn’t afford to buy him a present. “When they stop your money for a year …” she pauses, quietly. “You start to feel like you’re not really worth anything.”

When a government is using inaccessible test centres for disability benefits, this isn’t merely about a few steps – it’s something bigger. It embodies a system that routinely withholds money from disabled people who are entitled to it, and an attitude of contempt towards benefit claimants that says someone like Jaki can be left to rot with barely any fuss.

Jaki tells me bailiffs recently came to the bungalow to collect on her debts. They left because there weren’t enough possessions to take. “At that point, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she says. The simplest, commonsense intervention from the government could stop all this in a heartbeat: a pledge to ensure no disability benefit is assessed in a building that disabled people can’t access easily. In the meantime, Jaki and others don’t stand a chance.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist

Word of the week: obesogen

Is your house a disgusting swamp of peril and sickness? The latest everything-is-terrifying news is the suggestion this week that dust and other particles around the home can be “obesogens” and stealthily cause us to become dangerously overweight.

The suffix -gen or -ogen (from the Greek for birth; compare “genesis”) indicates that something is being produced. An “immunogen” is any substance that produces an immune response in an organism. The substance originally known as “burnt air” or “mephitic air” was christened nitrogen after it was found to be present in nitric acid.

In our day the headline-making -ogens are usually carcinogens (cancer-generating), such as bacon and, um, obesity. If “obesogens” catch on, the health-conscious will rightly wonder if there are any molecules still left that don’t make us sick. One of biology’s best jokes, after all, is that the very air we breathe helps to kill us, because oxygen (“acid-generating”, so misnamed by the chemist Lavoisier, who thought that it formed all acids) is so reactive.

The calmest approach is probably just to assume that everything we encounter is a causer of death, or thanatogen.

Word of the week: obesogen

Is your house a disgusting swamp of peril and sickness? The latest everything-is-terrifying news is the suggestion this week that dust and other particles around the home can be “obesogens” and stealthily cause us to become dangerously overweight.

The suffix -gen or -ogen (from the Greek for birth; compare “genesis”) indicates that something is being produced. An “immunogen” is any substance that produces an immune response in an organism. The substance originally known as “burnt air” or “mephitic air” was christened nitrogen after it was found to be present in nitric acid.

In our day the headline-making -ogens are usually carcinogens (cancer-generating), such as bacon and, um, obesity. If “obesogens” catch on, the health-conscious will rightly wonder if there are any molecules still left that don’t make us sick. One of biology’s best jokes, after all, is that the very air we breathe helps to kill us, because oxygen (“acid-generating”, so misnamed by the chemist Lavoisier, who thought that it formed all acids) is so reactive.

The calmest approach is probably just to assume that everything we encounter is a causer of death, or thanatogen.

Iowa: will America’s strictest abortion law drive female voters to the left?

Linda Madison is exactly the sort of voter Donald Trump relied on to win in the 2016 election. A 64-year-old Lutheran who lives in a small town in Iowa’s rural south-western corner, she was once a fervent Democrat. She even campaigned for one-time Democratic presidential contender John Edwards.

But, she began to feel Democrats lost their way, and switched parties. She and the two men she was chatting with in a parking lot in Atlantic, Iowa, all think Trump is doing pretty well. The stock market is rising, talks with North Korea could work out, Trump hasn’t messed up too badly, they said.

Instead, it is state lawmakers in Iowa that Madison now believes have swung too far to the right. A new Iowa law passed in May that bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually at about six weeks. That is before most women know they are pregnant. The law, Madison said, is “awful”.

“We’re going to see a lot more clothes hangers used and women dying,” Madison said. “I just don’t go along with it.” The law won’t affect her, or her children, but she said she hoped her granddaughters would “have the choice”.

The law is now the subject of a court challenge, which proponents hope will take it all the way to the US supreme court and offer a chance to attack Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed American women abortion rights. That is unlikely, given two similar laws in South Dakota and Arkansas were struck down, but possible, as Trump stacks federal courts with conservative judges.

Bob Vander Plaats, leader of The Family Leader, below Donald Trump.


Bob Vander Plaats, leader of The Family Leader, below Donald Trump. He said campaigners ‘passed more pro-life legislation in 2017 than in any time in Iowa’s history’. Photograph: Scott Morgan for the Guardian

Iowa’s abortion ban is one of the strictest in the industrialized world, rivaling countries like Ireland, where abortion is banned in nearly all circumstances. It follows a raft of recent restrictions on abortion in other states.

“Supporters of women’s healthcare and reproductive freedom are just mostly stunned that this would even be a topic,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. The ACLU is challenging the “heartbeat” law with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. “It’s just so blatantly unconstitutional.”

There are 206 US counties whose citizens voted for Barack Obama twice, only to swing to Trump in 2016. Thirty-one of those counties are in Iowa. One anti-abortion campaigner, Bob Vander Plaats of Iowa’s Family Leader, proudly said campaigners “passed more pro-life legislation in 2017 than in any time in Iowa’s history”.

Now, some voters wonder whether they will keep their reputation as a “purple state”, or if the state’s hard turn to the right will stick.

“It made me worried,” said Ardyth Gillespie, 73, a resident of rural Cass county, where Trump won by 39%.

“It made me mad,” her friend Sandy Sothman, a 59-year-old former healthcare worker responded. “What we often hear is it’s a choice between life and abortion,” said Sothman. “And that’s not true, it’s a woman’s choice.”

Gillespie, 73, agreed, with the exception, “I would say it’s a family’s choice”. She added: “I don’t think it’s something people talk about.”

One pastor in a rural town she described as a “staunchly Republican town, and a staunchly religious town”, said women in her “moderate” congregation had brought their concerns to her. She described herself as “generally speaking … not pro-abortion,” but she was against the law.

The pastor, like many others in this largely rural state dotted with small towns, preferred to remain anonymous to avoid alienating friends and neighbors.

“I suspect a lot of what they say and think really has a lot to do with having control over women’s bodies,” she said about the bill’s supporters. “They’re frightened of giving women control over their own lives and their own choices.”

“There are people who are genuinely concerned, and genuinely feel abortion is a murder,” the pastor said. “I respect them, I see where they’re coming from.”

In a local bar in Sioux City, in the state’s conservative north-west, a set of regulars refused to give their names. Instead, they casually discussed how women who are responsible better “pee on a stick” after sex. Another said abortion decisions should be “50-50”, because men have to “pay the child support”. Two appeared to have reservations, but did not speak up.

Jan Lunde hands out yard signs to Carol Preston of during a town hall meeting for Iowa Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Axne.


Jan Lunde hands out yard signs to Carol Preston of during a town hall meeting for Iowa Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Axne. Photograph: Scott Morgan for the Guardian

Iowa hosts the nation’s first straw polls, which cast long shadows on presidential elections. The political theory of the moment holds that a wave of Democratic victories will wash across the United States because of laws like Iowa’s.

Margaret Jarosz, a campaign manager for a Democratic congressional candidate, said she was recently door-knocking in a working class neighborhood, when she encountered frustrated female voters.

“I talked to like three Republican women, who said, ‘I’m done being a Republican’,” because of the law, said Jarosz. “As a woman, it’s a really big healthcare issue”.

Some rural voters, such as Carol Preston, said they are cautiously optimistic. “I have Republican friends who are not going to vote Republican,” said Preston. “There’s a lot of women searching for women candidates – this is the year of the woman.”

Others, like Jim Jordan, need more convincing.

“I’ve been a progressive Democrat my whole life, and heartbroken my whole life,” he said. “I appreciate the enthusiasm,” he said, but, “When you’ve been living in red Iowa for this long, you’re suspicious of blue waves”.