Life

The number of Northern Irish women seeking abortions in England and Wales has risen significantly

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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Women at abortion rights protest in London on the 11 May 2019

New statistics show an increase of 22% in the number of women travelling to access reproductive care.  

With all of the recent terrifying changes to abortion laws in America, it’s sometimes all too easy to forget that women in Northern Ireland continue to live in a country where their reproductive systems are strictly controlled. 

Although the Republic of Ireland overturned it’s ban on abortions in May 2018, there are no signs that Northern Ireland’s laws will change anytime soon – especially because the DUP, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest parties, remains fundamentally opposed to abortion.

Women living in Northern Ireland can only access abortion when there is a risk to the life of the mother, or the pregnancy poses a risk to her physical or mental health. That means that there’s no provision for circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality, for women whose pregnancy is the result or rape or incest, or those who simply want to decide what happens to their own body: in 2017-18, only 12 legal abortions were actually carried out in the country. That’s compared to statistics which show there were 200,608 abortions for women resident in England and Wales in 2018. 

Pro-choice campaigners urge the government to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws at a protest in London, June 2018

But that number is far from reflective of the real number of Northern Irish women having abortions – they’re just seeking that reproductive right elsewhere.

Data published by the Department of Health and Social Care has revealed that 1,053 women travelled from Northern Ireland to access abortions in 2018, compared to 861 in the previous year – that’s a rise of 22%. 

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Speaking to The Guardian, Clare Murphy, the director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said the growing number of Northern Irish women travelling to access abortions showed “how desperately women need to be able to access lawful services at home.

“These statistics only give us a tiny part of the picture,” she continued. “They don’t tell us the stories of the women who have to get up in the middle of the night, the logistical nightmare of travel and making arrangements for the care of their existing children, needing to find an excuse for work and family.”

The news comes after a landmark report by The Women and Equalities Committee said the UK government has a responsibility to intervene in Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. The report, which was published following a formal inquiry, suggested that while the Northern Ireland Assembly should have the right to decide on Northern Irish laws, they are required not to pass laws that contradict the UK’s international human rights commitments – something Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have repeatedly been found to do. 

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Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner recently said she would no longer work in Northern Ireland and Georgia (one of the states where highly restrictive abortion laws have recently been introduced), and said she was glad the hit-show, which films in Belfast, had come to an end.

And she’s not the only actress lending her support – stars of the Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls joined a Northern Ireland abortion law protest in London in February, where they joined protesters to deliver a 62,000-strong petition to the government calling for abortion rights to be changed in Northern Ireland. 

Derry Girls’ Nicola Coughlan leads a group of protesters delivering a 62,000-strong petition to the government calling for a change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws

Nicola Coughlan, who plays Clare Devlin on the show, said she wanted to raise awareness of the women travel from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain to access an abortion – on average, that’s 28 women a week.

Talking to Sky News, she said: “We want to be here to stand up for those women who have to make those journeys so they don’t have to be here. It’s unfair they are treated like criminals.

“People are treating it like it’s not their problem,” she continued. “But it’s somebody’s problem.” 

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