Number of NI women getting GB abortions close to all-time low

Easier access to contraception and the availability of abortion pills on the internet could explain the drop in the number of recorded abortions by NI women
Easier access to contraception and the availability of abortion pills on the internet could explain the drop in the number of recorded abortions by NI women

Easier-to-obtain contraception and the rise of illegal pills from the internet have both been cited as possible reasons for a massive drop in recorded abortions among Northern Irish women.

Earlier this month official figures were released showing that 837 women and girls from the Province had travelled to England and Wales to terminate their pregnancies during 2014.

However, The News Letter has taken a more detailed look at the long-term picture, going all the way back to 1970 – shortly after the UK-wide ban on abortion was lifted.

What it shows is that the number of women going to England and Wales is virtually at an all-time low.

The figure of 837 such abortions in 2014 was up by 35 when compared to the previous year.

But the last time the figure was this low was in 1972, when there were 775 such abortions.

The data from the Department of Health shows that from the early 1970s on, the numbers of Northern Irish women having abortions in England and Wales rose until reaching a pinnacle in 1990.

During that year, 1,855 women made the trip across the Irish Sea.

Ever since then the numbers have been falling steadily.

For example:

• 1993: 1,624

• 1996: 1,573

• 1999: 1,528

• 2002: 1,391

• 2005: 1,164

• 2008: 1,173

• 2011: 1,007

And finally to 837 in 2014.

Meanwhile, in England and Wales there is no long-term decline of the kind seen for Northern Irish women.

Instead the number of abortions for residents there grew decade by decade, until reaching a peak of 198,499 in 2007.

There has been a slight drop recently, with the most up-to-date figure showing there were 185,824 abortions in 2015.

Asked to explain the huge decline for Northern Irish women, Breedagh Hughes, the head of the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland, could not be certain.

However, she has previously voiced concerns about the widespread availability of abortion pills on the internet – something which she stresses is unsafe (as well as unlawful).

When it comes to the falling number of recorded abortions for Northern Irish women, she said: “I’d hazard a guess that they are self-aborting at home as it is less costly.”

However, since the decline began in 1991 – before the internet was a widespread phenomenon – it is unlikely this can be the sole reason.

The Marie Stopes organisation – a private abortion provider with an office in Belfast – was also asked the question.

Policy director Genevieve Edwards responded: “This could be due to the increasing availability over the years of more effective contraception, particularly since the birth rate has also been falling in recent years.”

While the figures in this story are the best ones available for the number of Northern Irish women having legal abortions, Ms Hughes also warns that many NI women who go to England or Wales will not give their real address, so the true figure is likely to be higher. In addition, it excludes any abortions which are carried out in Scotland.

“The abortion rate in England has also been falling slightly, in part due to the availability of long-acting contraception and the impact of the teenage pregnancy strategy.”