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Q&A: Here's how many women and girls travel to the UK for abortions

More than 170,000 females have travelled to another country for a termination since 1980.

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In our Q&A: Eighth Amendment Referendum series, we are answering questions our readers have submitted in relation to the upcoming vote on 25 May.

THE QUESTION

  • Do we know how many Irish women travel to England each year for abortions?

20180430_Abortion_1 Source: Statista

THE ANSWER

NINE WOMEN AND girls leave Ireland every day to have a termination in the UK. A further three order abortion pills online.

More than 170,000 women and girls have travelled to another country for an abortion since 1980. The vast majority went to Britain, while a smaller number went to the Netherlands.

On 25 May, Irish people will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum asking whether or not the Eighth Amendment, Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, should be repealed.

The amendment gives equal constitutional status to the mother and the unborn and effectively bans abortion from taking place legally in most scenarios in Ireland.

However, women are permitted to receive information about terminations from their doctors, and travel abroad to have one if they so choose.

In a referendum in November 1992, the majority of voters backed a constitutional amendment which allowed women and girls to travel “between the State and another state” to get access to a termination” (62.4% in favour).

Voters also backed the following amendment on the right to information: ”This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.”

So, how many women and girls travel to the UK to have abortions?

Figures from the UK Department of Health show that 190,406 abortions were reported as taking place in England and Wales in 2016 – of which 185,596 involved residents of England and Wales. The vast majority of these abortions (92%) were performed under 13 weeks of pregnancy.

In 2016, 4,810 abortions were carried out on women who were not residents of England and Wales – compared with 5,190 in 2015. The number of abortions to non-residents has fallen each year since 2003, when the figure was 9,078. The 2016 number is the lowest in any year since 1969.

Some 3,265 females travelled from Ireland to the UK for abortions in 2016, the latest year for which we statistics are available. That means Irish females accounted for almost seven in 10 (67.9%) of the non-resident abortions carried out in Britain that year.

20180430_Abortion_2 Source: Statista

The figures also show that another 724 women and girls gave addresses from Northern Ireland (15%).

This compares to 3,451 who gave an address in the Republic, and 833 who gave an address in Northern Ireland, in 2015.

The vast majority of the females who gave addresses from the Republic lived in Dublin – 1,175.

20180430_Abortion_3 (1) Source: Statista.com

During a Dáil debate in January, Health Minister Simon Harris listed how many women and girls left Irish counties to go to the UK for terminations.

He stated: “These are real women, such as the 36 from county Carlow who travelled to the UK for an abortion in 2016, or the 38 from Mayo, the 69 from Tipperary, the 85 from Wicklow, the 241 from Cork and the 1,175 women from Dublin.

“Women from every county in the Republic travelled to the UK in 2016 and we need to acknowledge them all, including the 49 from Kerry; 130 from Kildare; 21 from Leitrim; 20 from Roscommon; 69 from Wexford; 39 from Cavan; 15 from Monaghan; 99 from Limerick; 53 from Clare; 38 from Westmeath; 63 from Donegal; 113 from Galway; 44 from Kilkenny; 42 from Laois; 83 from Louth; 100 from Meath; 28 from Offaly; 29 from Sligo; 16 from Longford; and 56 from Waterford.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Women in the age groups ranging from 20-39 accounted for most of the terminations (85%).

However, 10 girls under the age of 16 sought an abortion in the UK last year, as did 56 girls aged 16 or 17 and 174 women aged 18 or 19. A further 255 women aged 40 and over also had terminations.

ireland, scotland, ni Source: UK Department of Health

Just over half of these women (51%) had a partner, while almost one in five (19%) were married or in a civil partnership.

Almost four in five of the women and girls (79%) had not had a previous abortion. Some 85% of the terminations took place within 12 weeks of gestation, with the majority of these (2,256) taking place within the first nine weeks.

Abortion pills

Commenting on figures when they were released last year, Helen Deely, head of the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme, said: “It appears that the rate of women travelling abroad for an abortion declined relatively rapidly between 2001 and 2007 and in recent years the decline has been more gradual.”

She said recent research shows that “increasing numbers of women from the island of Ireland are making contact with online abortion pill providers”.

Figures published by one provider would suggest a 62% increase in the number of women from Ireland contacting that online service over a five-year period, from 548 in 2010 to 1438 in 2015.

“The authors report that the number of women who consult with the service is not indicative of the actual number of women who were sent the abortion pill and subsequently took it.

“This is because women change their minds, experience a spontaneous miscarriage, decide to travel abroad to obtain an abortion or decide to continue with their pregnancy.”

Deely added that research shows, while the vast majority of women did not need to contact medical services following taking the abortion pill at home, approximately one in 10 (9.3%) “reported to the online provider that they were experiencing a symptom for which they were advised to seek medical advice and 95% sought medical advice as advised”, Deely said.

Why women and girls have abortions 

The Oireachtas Eighth Amendment Committee examined the UK’s abortion system during its hearings last year.

In November Dr Patricia Lohr, Medical Director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, told the committee that BPAS has been “providing abortion care to women from Ireland since 1968“.

Indeed, BPAS’s website notes: “We’ve helped Irish women for a very long time, so we understand the difficulties you may face to get treatment.

BPAS has clinics in over 60 locations – many are close to ports and airports with direct budget travel from Ireland.

“Our special prices help you afford the best possible clinical care. More discount is available if you visit an Irish crisis pregnancy counselling agency before attending for BPAS treatment.”

The organisation is in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Speaking about Irish women travelling to the UK for abortions, Lohr told the Oireachtas committee: “Last year 3,625 women were recorded in the annual abortion statistics produced by the Department of Health in England as having given an Irish address when they presented for treatment. Over the past 10 years, the number of women giving Irish addresses has fallen, from 4,600 in 2008.

This decline may be underpinned by a number of factors, including: better access to contraceptive services, and emergency contraception, increased access to abortion medication, as well as raised awareness that free treatment can be obtained with a UK address.

Lohr noted that a paper in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology published in July “reported that between January 2010 and December 2015, 5,650 women from Ireland and Northern Ireland contacted one online provider alone to request medical termination of pregnancy”.

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Lohr told the committee there is “little difference between the reasons why women from Ireland present compared to those from the UK”. She said the reasons given by women and girls seeking abortions are “diverse and multifaceted”.

They involve “financial hardship, knowledge that her family is complete, inadequate partner or family support, domestic violence, or simply feeling they are not in the position to care for a baby at that point in their lives”, Lohr stated.

Of Irish women who receive abortion care in the UK, 70% are married or with a partner. Nearly half have already had at least one previous birth, meaning they are already mothers. All this is in keeping with information we have for women from the UK.

Lohr noted that, while some abortions “take place of pregnancies that were planned and indeed wanted, such as those for foetal anomaly, the majority of the women we see were trying to avoid pregnancy when they conceived”.

She said the majority of women from Ireland who had abortions in the UK were using a form of contraception when they conceived. An analysis of 2,703 women from Ireland who were treated at BPAS clinic over a four-year period found they were using the following forms of contraception:

  • 3.1%: Intrauterine contraceptive/implant/sterilisation
  • 28.8%: Injection/oral contraceptives/patch/ring
  • 47.6%: Condom/diaphragm/fertility-awareness based methods
  • 20.4%: No method

Lohr told the committee that medical abortion accounts for the majority of early terminations carried out on residents in the UK, stating: “Many women prefer it as it is akin to a natural miscarriage, they can avoid an anaesthetic, and they can be at home when the pregnancy passes.”

However, the majority of early abortions provided for Irish women are performed surgically – 71%, compared to 28% for women resident in England and Wales.

Lohr said this is because, for financial and practical reasons, many women travelling from Ireland “often aim to fly in and out of the UK within a day, and as medical abortion involves leaving the clinic after taking the second set of medication and going home to pass the pregnancy, it is not clinically optimal for that to happen on the way to the airport or the flight home”.

“Effectively this means that women from Ireland are in all practical senses denied a choice of method in abortion,” Lohr said.

She also told the committee that three in 10 abortions (31%) carried out in the UK on women from the Republic of Ireland are performed at 10 weeks or later, compared to 20% for women who are resident in England and Wales.

Lohr said the earlier in a pregnancy a termination can be performed the better, both in terms of women’s “physical and mental wellbeing”.

“Reasons for later presentation will include the time it takes to organise travel and make logistical arrangements, particularly for those with work and childcare commitments,” she stated.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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Órla Ryan

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