While the Republic of Ireland voted to overturn the country's abortion ban in 2018, the procedure remains illegal in Northern Ireland, forcing many to travel to England and Wales to secure an abortion. In 2018, the number of Northern Irish people getting abortions in England and Wales increased by 22 percent since 2017, as the Guardian reports. 1,053 people made the journey last year, compared to 861 in 2017.
A total of 205,295 abortions were performed in England and Wales in 2018, compared to 197,533 in 2017, according to figures from the UK government's Department of Health & Social Care. For residents of both countries, the figure was 200,608 — a rise of 4 percent from last year, when the total stood at 192,900. Out of the 4,687 people not resident in England or Wales who had an abortion in 2018, 61 percent were from the Republic of Ireland, while 22 percent were from Northern Ireland.
The number of people aged 35 and over and people who had previously been pregnant receiving an abortion also increased in 2018. 34,380 people 35 and over had an abortion last year, an increase of 6 percent from 2017. 56 percent of those having an abortion last year had previously had a pregnancy resulting in either a live or stillbirth, an increase of 5 percent since 2017, as the Guardian reports.
While abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in the UK (with a longer time limit permitted in particular circumstances) under the 1967 Abortion Act, the law does not apply in Northern Ireland, where forces including the Democratic Unionist Party and the Catholic church have repeatedly blocked attempts to legalise the procedure.
Without a devolved government in Northern Ireland, many have argued for Westminster to reform the country's abortion laws. A 2018 poll carried out by Amnesty International indicated that 65 percent of adults in Northern Ireland thought that getting an abortion shouldn't be a crime, while 66 percent said Westminster should legislate for abortion law reform while there's no government in the country.
Speaking to the Guardian, Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaign manager for Amnesty, said, "This ban just forces them to board planes to access the healthcare. Women should be treated with respect and dignity and given the right to make choices about their own body at home."
"It’s clear that change needs to happen. It’s degrading and insulting that the UK government allows women in Northern Ireland to travel to receive vital healthcare services but will not give us this same access at home," Teggart added.
Claire Murphy, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service's director of external affairs, told the Guardian that the 2018 abortion statistics "only give us a tiny part of the picture — 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."
"They don’t tell the stories of women who sit on planes bleeding and nauseous," Murphy said. "These numbers also cannot tell us about the women who simply cannot travel, and who risk prosecution and punishment by ordering pills online, or who are forced to continue a pregnancy they do not want."