More than 1,000 abortion pills were seized by Irish health authorities last year — twice the number confiscated in each of the previous two years.
The figures have prompted renewed calls for wider legal abortion services in Ireland.
The alliance Doctors for Choice said women may be fearful of telling their GP that they had, or were in the process of, taking such medication to induce an illegal abortion, given that it is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Figures supplied to the Irish Examiner by the Health Protection Regulatory Authority show that seizures of the two main abortion pills over the last five years reached a peak in 2014. The statistics show:
“No one knows what percentage of the total number of pills coming in these seizures represent,” said Dr Peadar O’Grady of Doctors for Choice. “But clearly there is a demand there.”
The Irish Family Planning Association said they knew from their counselling services that “many women and girls seek the abortion pill online” as an alternative to travelling to another state to access abortion services.
“These are often women and girls without the necessary economic and legal resources to travel for an abortion — in particular young women, women on low incomes, or migrant women with travel restrictions,” said IFPA chief executive Niall Behan.
He pointed out that the maximum penalty for inducing an illegal abortion in Ireland was 14 years’ imprisonment.
“While the health risks associated with medical abortion are low and rarely occur, the chilling effects of Ireland’s abortion laws mean that should complications arise, many women may not seek medical care due to fear of prosecution,” Mr Behan said.
He encouraged women who experience complications upon taking the abortion pill to seek immediate medical care.
Dr O’Grady said the fear of prosecution is a real concern for women in such situations: “As a clinician you want full disclosure from your patient, but the fear for these women is ‘can I trust the doctor?’ Will they keep it confidential, something which on the face of it carries a 14-year sentence?”
No woman is known to have been prosecuted for possessing or using these pills in the Republic of Ireland, but in the North, a Belfast mother is being prosecuted for supplying abortion pills to her daughter.
UK Department of Health Figures, released by the HSE, show that 3,735 women gave Irish addresses at abortion clinics in Britain in 2014, a slight increase on 2013 (3,679), but down substantially from 2001 (6,673).
Separately, Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday flatly ruled out reforming abortion laws if returned to power after the general election.
Speaking at Fine Gael’s pre-Dáil meeting in Adare, Co Limerick, he said: “In respect of the 8th Amendment I do not favour abortion on demand and I have no intention of abolishing it without considering what it might be that might replace it.
“To commit to abolishing the 8th Amendment without consideration of what you might do is not on my radar.”
Mr Kenny also said he would not commit to a referendum on abolishing the eighth amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees protection of the life of the unborn.
“No I am not committing to any referendum. Fine Gael is in the middle of preparation of its own Fine Gael programme [for the election] and will consider this matter very carefully along with a number of other sensitive issues as well.”
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