Abortion exported: women travelling for terminations

Women from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic had almost 25,000 abortions in England and Wales over the last five years – an average of close to 100 terminations every week.

New data obtained by Detail Data from the Department of Health in London reveals the individual clinics the women attended, with the map illustrating the journeys they undertook to bypass strict abortion laws at home. The findings are being published as the issue of abortion continues to be hotly debated on both sides of the Irish border.

One of the key findings from an analysis of the official abortion figures is that almost half (45%) of all the abortions involving women from north and south took place in Manchester clinics. Women boarded planes or ships to travel to this city in the north west of England to terminate over 11,000 pregnancies. 30% of all of the Irish abortions recorded took place in one clinic there - Marie Stopes International Manchester.

Abortions are available in Northern Ireland only if a woman’s life is at risk or where there is a risk of a serious and adverse long term or permanent effect on her physical or mental health. The punishment is life imprisonment for anyone who unlawfully performs a termination. Abortion is also illegal in the Republic of Ireland, except where the pregnancy presents a real and substantial risk to the mother's life. Amnesty NI campaigner Grainne Teggart said: “The Northern Ireland and Irish governments don’t mind women having abortions just as long as they’re not here in Ireland. Abortions not being lawful doesn’t mean that women don’t have abortions, it means that they either resort to desperate measures or they seek those services elsewhere.”

The Abortion Act 1967 covers England, Scotland and Wales but not Northern Ireland. It states that two doctors must agree that a termination would cause less damage to a woman’s physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy. There are rare occasions when an abortion can take place after 24 weeks.

There are many reasons why a woman of all ages might seek an abortion. Those who had terminations outside of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the last five years include hundreds of children under the age of 16, who are therefore below the legal age of consent for sex. For some women, the decision to end their pregnancy has had long-lasting emotional consequences. One County Antrim centre which offers post-abortion counselling told us that one of their clients was aged in her 80s when she first sought help for a secret abortion she had as a teenager. “People often come to us further down the line when they have gone through anniversaries and due dates. It can affect them just like any other kind of loss,” the head of the centre in Carrickfergus said.

An abortion provider told us about women travelling for late term abortions (after 20 weeks gestation) in cases involving fatal foetal abnormalities who decide to carry their baby’s remains on flights for burial at home. Some sought official permission from airlines for this – others just hoped it wouldn’t be found in their luggage.

The Cost

The cost of abortions for women travelling to England and Wales ranges from £400 to £1,500 for the treatment alone, with travel and potential accommodation costs on top of this. Marie Stopes and BPAS offer reduced fees for women travelling from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland because of the travel costs they face.

The Data

Using Freedom of Information legislation, Detail Data requested and received a breakdown by clinic of five years of abortions involving women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is the first time the data relating to each individual clinic in England and Wales has been released into the public domain.

To view this data on the Detail Data Portal, click here.

The story, by Kathryn Torney: Abortion Exported: the women travelling for terminations was published by Detail Data on 14 December 2015. 

Detail Data have also included an article written by a young Belfast woman on her experience of travelling outside of Northern Ireland after she learnt at her 20 year scan that the baby girl she was carrying had anencephaly.  To view this article vist here.

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