We have become familiar with the annual release of NHS statistics which gives us a good idea of how many Irish women have been seeking abortions in England and Wales since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed. These statistics were useful in determining the demand for abortion in Ireland and showed clearly that the demand was declining since 2001. In the ten years 2009 to 2018 the number of Irish abortions in England and Wales declined from 4,422 to 2,879 which is by over a third. At the same time abortions in England and Wales were on the increase. The Irish abortion figures peaked at 6,673 in 2001 and with the exception of 2014, which showed a slight increase, has been on the decline on every year since. The 2018 figures represent a decline of 57% from 2001.
One reason that’s cited by pro-choice campaign groups for the decline in Irish abortions during this period is the increased use of the abortion pill. Regulation in this area was one of the government’s main platforms when changing the constitution and later introducing abortion. Whilst this is a one possible reason for the decline it does not explain the dramatic drop in numbers.
The main source for self administered abortion pills in Ireland was the organization Women on Web who offered “online consultations” and sent pills from the Netherlands. Over a three year period, 2010-2012 WoW reported that they sent pills to 1,642 women in Ireland. In the same period there were 2,468 seizures of abortion pills by Irish customs officials. It is clear that the very large decline is not down to the use of the abortion pill. What’s more the abortion pill is only effective at the early stages of pregnancy and the English and Welsh abortion statistics for the period show a consistent decline in abortions at all stages. If there was widespread use of the abortion pill in this period and at an increasing rate then you would expect to see a fast decline in abortions at the earlier gestation periods and a slower decline at the later gestation periods.
This chart shows the yearly decline in abortions by gestation.
|3 – 9||-2.13%||-10.33%||-4.97%||-7.55%||2.23%||-6.96%||-4.93%||-4.73%||-0.86%||-2.43%|
|10 – 12||-16.00%||7.84%||-9.57%||-7.54%||-0.65%||-11.01%||0.88%||-8.43%||-6.16%||-8.92%|
|13 – 19||-13.97%||2.04%||-2.00%||-7.18%||-2.92%||-9.37%||-3.91%||-9.56%||6.40%||-3.80%|
|20 and over||-22.03%||11.32%||-5.36%||-10.40%||15.74%||6.93%||-11.40%||4.59%||23.86%||-4.35%|
After the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 commenced on 1 January 2019 it was expected that the number of Irish women obtaining abortions in England and Wales would drastically decline. One of the reasons given for changing the Constitution and introducing the law was it was considered a hardship for women to travel to England for an abortion. The total number of Irish abortions in England and Wales was 378, an 87% decrease on the previous year’s numbers. The decline was very different in the different gestation categories though. There was a 97% decrease in abortions in the 3-9 week gestation period while the reduction in the 20+ week category was just over 14%. The Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018 made obtaining an abortion in early stages very easy but still placed restrictions on babies at 20+ weeks. Many of the babies aborted at 20+ are past the viability stage. This is also the stage after which there is little doubt but the human fetus feels pain.
The 1967 Abortion Act stipulated that statistics be gathered on every legal abortion performed. This is done by completing HSA4 forms and submitting them to the Chief Medical Officer. The forms collect a wide array of information about the woman obtaining the abortion, her age, ethnicity, where she lives, previous abortions, reasons for the abortion, gestation stage etc. While this was collected on a paper form in the past today the forms can be completed electronically. In the debate around the Health, Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018 after the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment an amendment was introduced by (I think it was Mattie and M Healy-Rae) to collect similar statistics on abortions performed in Ireland. This was rejected by the government in favour of reporting just the bare numbers and not figures that are routinely reported elsewhere, e.g. gestation and reasons for late term abortions, e.g. disability.