Records from Britain’s Department of Health reveal 3,451 women gave addresses in the Republic while attending clinics in England and Wales last year — a slight decrease on the 2014 figure of 3,735, but down 48% from the 2001 figure of 6,673.
The UK records show an even steeper decline among teenagers, with the vast majority of Irish women seeking abortions in Britain being in their 20s and 30s.
The reduction has been welcomed by the HSE and pro-life groups, but crisis pregnancy services insist the sharp decline can be explained by the availability of abortion pills online and the fact that not all women give Irish addresses when accessing services in Britain.
Chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, Niall Behan, said the increased usage of abortion pills by women is having a “significant impact” on the decline in the number of women in Ireland seeking abortion services in Britain.
“The IFPA knows from its services that women who cannot travel for abortion services are increasingly accessing the abortion pill online,” Mr Behan said. “Our experience echoes the findings of a major report published last week by the World Health Organisation and the Guttmacher Institute that data available in Ireland does not give a true picture of women who access abortion.”
The head of the HSE crisis pregnancy programme, Helen Deely, warned of the dangers of using abortion pills bought online.
“Women of all ages and all socio-economic backgrounds experience crisis pregnancy,” she said. “If a woman makes the decision to have an abortion, it is safer for her to attend an abortion clinic in the UK or another country where abortion is legally available, than ordering the abortion pill online or from other sources and taking it at home alone.”
The Abortion Support Network said the figures hide the real harm done by Ireland’s strict abortion laws.
“These Department of Health abortion statistics only tell only tell part of the story,” said director Mara Clarke. “These numbers do not capture the women who cannot travel — women who need but cannot obtain passports or visas needed to travel; women who cannot escape from violent partners; and women who do not have the £400 to £2,000 it costs to travel to England and pay privately for an abortion — and who don’t know that ASN exists and can help them. They do not include the women who come to England and give the address of a local friend or family member, the women who travel to other countries to access abortions, or the hundreds — if not thousands — of women who are obtaining early medical abortion pills online.”
Cora Sherlock of the Pro Life Campaign rejected this argument: “The suggestion by some that the availability of abortion pills explains the fall in the number of women travelling for abortion doesn’t add up when you factor in that the fall in the number of abortions has been happening for 14 years straight, a period of time much longer than abortion pills have been readily available online.”