How Many Abortions in Ireland?

I think that recent estimates showing 4,400 Irish women having an abortion in 2016 is too low, the number is likely to be much higher than this.

The Irish Times recently ran a fact check piece confirming that Solidarity’s claim that more than 170,000 Irish women have travelled abroad for an abortion since 1980 is correct. This is derived from data released by the Department of Health in the UK and similar data from the Netherlands. These data show that in 2016, 3,265 women gave Irish addresses when registering at an abortion clinic in GB.

I think this is a conservative estimate and that it is quite likely that
many more Irish women have had an abortion.

“So what?” I hear some say, but it is important that we establish reliable data which can be used to inform the planning of services delivery and SRHR strategies such as ensuring easy and affordable access to the most effective forms of contraception, for all women who want this.

On May 25th, residents of Ireland will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum to decide if the 8th amendment should be abolished or continue. The amendment essentially restricts access to safe abortion in Ireland. Lack of reliable data is just one consequence of these legal restrictions, and in noting this I am in no way minimising the significant personal impact on the Irish women who are seeking an abortion.

At a Together4Yes campaign meeting on Irish 21st Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach sat in front of a banner showing the following data:

  • 9 (on average) Irish women travel abroad every day for a termination of pregnancy;
  • 3 Irish women every day take abortion pills obtained online;
  • In 2016 3,265 women travelled abroad for abortions. They came from every county in Ireland.

Together4Yes 2

Whilst this is using the same number for those Irish women who travelled abroad for an abortion in 2016, 3,265, it adds a new dimension, estimating the number of those who self-administer medical abortion at home.

Added together, plus the 34 registering at Dutch clinics, we find an estimated total of just over 4,400 Irish women having an abortion in 2016.

I think that even this larger estimate is still too low.

In Ireland, there are 997,000 women of reproductive age, WRA, 15-45, based on 2016 census data. Using the above estimate of 4,400, we find an abortion rate equivalent to 4.4 abortions per 1,000 WRA per annum. We should note that if this estimate is correct, then Ireland has an abortion rate lower than all of the other country estimates made by Guttmacher. Switzerland at 5 per 1,000 is the lowest rate which I have seen reported, and so this Irish estimate might be correct, women in Ireland might be accessing abortion at the same rate as those in Switzerland.

However, I think it is more likely that women in Ireland are more similar to those in GB where the abortion rate is 16 per year per 1,000 WRA so there may be as many as 16,000 abortions in Ireland each year.

This is a very wide range, from 4,400 to 16,000, and whilst we might assume for planning purposes that the rate in Ireland is lower than in England and Wales, it has to be higher than the rate reported by the Taoiseach and by Solidarity.

I would speculate:

  • that some women who travel from Ireland to England and Wales for an abortion do not provide correct information about their location of residence, and so are not counted as Irish;
  • or that many more Irish women are travelling to other countries and do not appear in official data;
  • or that many women are self-administering medical abortion or accessing other alternatives in-country and these cases are not being reported.

About Kevin Duffy

Interim Management and Consulting - Global Healthcare Development. Kevin has over ten years of senior management experience in the delivery of healthcare services in Africa and South Asia. His current focus is on the strategic development of policy, guidance, and tools to help healthcare organisations achieve sustainable impact – balancing the need to become financially sustainable, with the mission of ensuring equitable access to affordable healthcare services.
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