Record low number of abortions performed in Northern Ireland last year

  • Figures released today show that just 12 abortions were performed in NI in 2017/2018 compared to 47 in 2007/08 – a decline of 74%
  • Abortion is legal in strict, very limited circumstances in NI, yet ambiguities and climate of fear caused by potential for criminalisation deters doctors from providing abortion care which would be considered permissible.
  • While women can now access government-funded abortion care in Great Britain, this represents a huge emotional hardship. Women unable to travel continue to risk up to life imprisonment by using abortion pills purchased online.
  • The charity bpas urges politicians in Westminster to press forward with moves decriminalise abortion across the UK via the government’s Domestic Abuse Bill.

Statistics published today by the Department of Health NI have shown that in 2017/18, just 12 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland – the lowest figure on record. In 2007/08, 47 terminations were performed.

The figures released today represent the continuation of a downward trend which began in 2013/14 when new guidance was issued by then-NI Health Minister. The guidance highlighted potential criminal sanctions for healthcare staff involved in “illegal” abortions, creating a "mood of fear" amongst clinicians who previously had felt able to provide termination care.

Since 2017 women from NI have been able to access funded care in England, Wales, and Scotland. However, the strain of travel, the fact that women must often come alone without the support of their partner or parent, and the shame of undergoing a procedure that is illegal in their own country can be extremely distressing for some women. 

In a survey conducted by bpas, Northern Irish women who had accessed abortion care in England in 2018 told of the hardship of travelling overseas for treatment:

“The physical pain, bleeding & nausea were barbaric for me for the first 24hours.  With the strongest painkillers  I was not functional. The flight home to NI was humiliating.  Vomiting on the plane and unable to walk off the plane without assistance. To then know, whilst I was in such extreme pain that my partner had to bring me to the toilet, clean me and change my sanitary pads, that I could not reaccess the clinic had something gone wrong was terrifying.”

“As a single mother, unexpectedly finding myself pregnant again was a big shock, I tried to come to terms with it but then… I ended up in hospital on a drip as I had an extreme form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum, I had little to no child care and I was so ill I struggled to look after my children, i knew I couldn’t continue with my pregnancy I had no choice… I had to leave all my babies behind and was gone for two days. After the procedure I just wanted to go home, I was so upset but I couldn’t my flight home wasn’t until the next day.”

“Although the procedure and my travel/accommodation was covered, my partner had to pay 280.00 in flights... If he had not been able to afford this I would have had to go by myself, the thought of which is truly horrendous.  We had to leave around 5 in the morning and didn't return until 10 the next night meaning we were gone for nearly 48 hours for a procedure that took around an hour in total.”  

Despite the government funding, women in Northern Ireland continue to use abortion pills purchased online, illegally, risking up to life imprisonment. The online provider Women on Web has reported only a minimal drop in requests (3%) since the scheme came into operation. Women in coercive relationships, those who cannot afford to take off work and those unable to find appropriate childcare, are among those most likely to find travel impossible.

The 1861 Offences Against the Persona Act criminalised abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The 1967 Abortion Act, which did not decriminalise abortion but provides legal exemptions to the 1861 OAPA, was not extended to NI, and under current law abortion is only permissible where there is a risk to the woman’s life or a risk that she would become a “physical or mental wreck

In 2018, a Private Members Bill tabled by Diana Johnson MP to decriminalise abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland through the repeal of the relevant sections of the 1861 OAPA passed its first stage with cross-party support. MPs have signalled that they will seek further legislative opportunities to end the near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, including via an amendment to the government’s now-published Domestic Abuse Bill.

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, said:

“Today’s figures demonstrate the increasing need for the repeal of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws, which every day force women overseas and threaten others who are unable to travel with criminalisation.

“The chilling effect of the current law, which has been exacerbated by guidance threatening healthcare professionals with criminal punishment, is preventing clinicians from providing the care their patients need. While funded abortion care in Great Britain has been a step forward, it is simply not enough. Northern Irish women must be able to access the care they need at home, supported by their friends and family.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

The full statistics can be accessed here.

About bpas:

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) is a British reproductive healthcare charity that offers pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management, contraception and STI testing to nearly 80,000 women each year via our clinics in England, Wales, and Scotland. 

BPAS has provided abortion care to women from Northern Ireland for 50 years, and today also provide a specialist pathway for women undergoing abortion care for foetal anomaly. We currently run the Central Booking Service, funded by the Government and Equalities Office, which finds consultation and treatment appointments in England for women travelling from Northern Ireland for abortion care.