The numbers of women from Northern Ireland travelling to England and Wales for an abortion have risen by 22% over the past year, the latest government figures* on pregnancy terminations for the two countries reveal.
More than 1,050 abortions were recorded among women with an address in Northern Ireland in 2018, following the launch of a government scheme in 2017 enabling them to access funded care in England and Wales.
The figures illustrate the significant unmet need, says the charity the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).
“The numbers of women travelling from Northern Ireland illustrate how desperately women need to be able to access lawful services at home. These statistics only give us a tiny part of the picture,” commented. Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPAS.
“They don’t tell the stories of women who sit on planes bleeding and nauseous. These numbers also cannot tell us about the women who simply cannot travel, and who risk prosecution and punishment by ordering pills online or who are forced to continue a pregnancy they do not want.”
The figures show that the overall abortion rate rose slightly to 17.4 per 1,000 women in 2018, up from 16.7/1000 in 2017, but it is still lower than it was in 2008 when the rate was 17.5.
Over this period, the rate of abortion among younger women has fallen sharply, while the rate among older women – particularly women over 30 – has risen.
For women aged of 25-29, the rate per 1,000 women was 25.3 in 2018 compared with 23.9 in 2008. Rates for this age group have increased in recent years, from their lowest level in 2012 of 21.8 abortions.
The rates for women aged 30-34 rose from 15.6/1,000 women in 2008 to 19.9 in 2018, and rates for women aged 35 and over increased from 6.7/1,000 women in 2008 to 9.2 in 2018.
Over the past decade the percentage of abortions for women who are already mothers rose by 17%, with over half (56%) of all terminations performed for women who have already had one or more previous births.
“The reasons for the increase in abortions for older women in England and Wales are complex,” commented Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPAS.
“Accessible contraceptive services are often focused on the needs of younger women, and women over the age of 25 can in particular find themselves excluded from schemes providing free, pharmacy access to emergency contraception.
“As so many women in the UK rely on pills and condoms as their main methods of contraception, it is vital that there is swift, access to emergency options when those methods fail or a pill is missed.”
She added that the increase over time among women who are already mothers was also noteworthy.
“Women accessing abortion services receive the full range of contraceptive options immediately afterwards, but there is much more we can do to improve access to contraception to women within postnatal services. Unplanned pregnancy in the year after birth is not uncommon, particularly among women who are breastfeeding.
“However, it is also possible that over the longer-term couples are making different decisions about family size and the number of children they can afford and feel able to properly care for.”
Referring to the US stance on abortion and the attempts in recent weeks to roll back women’s reproductive rights, she said: “If we are to make a stand we simply must address the situation that exists within our own borders, and the criminalisation of women and healthcare professionals in the UK today.
“BPAS supports the decriminalisation of abortion across the UK: abortion is a key part of women’s reproductive healthcare, essential if women are to be able to make their own decisions about their own bodies, lives and families, and it should be regulated in the same way as all other women’s healthcare procedures.”
* Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2018. Department of Health and Social Care, June 2019.