After 12 weeks abortion will only be available where there is a risk to life, a serious risk to health, or a diagnosis of ‘fatal foetal anomaly’. However, women will almost certainly continue to need abortion outside of these situations.
Women in Ireland who seek abortion will almost certainly continue to travel to access abortion care abroad in situations where it is not available under Irish law. For example women will not be able to end a pregnancy legally in Ireland in the following situations:
- There is a risk to her health that falls short of the new Irish legal standard of ‘serious harm’ to health
- Socio-economic grounds
- Because they have received a diagnosis of non-fatal foetal anomaly or
- Because they did not detect their pregnancy in time to access abortion within 12 weeks
The proposed new law is considerably more conservative than, for example, the Abortion Act 1967 (see explanation here), and so some women who cannot access abortion in Ireland will continue to travel abroad.
How many people in Ireland travel for abortion?
Every year the Department of Health in the UK publishes statistics on abortion provision under the Abortion Act 1967. This is the most comprehensive statistical picture we have of how many women in Ireland have abortions abroad. It is not a complete account of abortion in Ireland. Some women go to other countries (e.g. the Netherlands), some women do not give Irish addresses, and some women access abortions pills online.
According to the 2016 statistics 3,265 women from the Republic of Ireland had an abortion in England and Wales.
How many of these people could access abortion in Ireland under the new law?
Up to 12 weeks
Most of the people who accessed abortion in England and Wales in 2016 would be able to have an abortion under the proposed new law, because most women who travel for an abortion do so before 12 weeks. Of the 3,265 women from the Republic of Ireland had an abortion in England and Wales in 2016, 85% of these women did so under 12 weeks gestation. 69% had an abortion within the first 10 weeks. All of the women from Ireland who had an abortion in England and Wales within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy could access abortion in Ireland under the proposed new law (see explanation here). As these statistics show, in 2016 that would have covered almost all of the women who travelled for abortions.
Risk to Health
A further 10.5% of the women who travelled to England and Wales from Ireland for abortions in 2016 terminated their pregnancies on health grounds at between 12 and 24 weeks. The Abortion Act 1967 allows for termination of pregnancy on the basis that continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman (section 1(1)(a), Abortion Act 1967). Because continuing any pregnancy is invariably more dangerous than ending it under medical supervision, this is a relatively easy standard to meet. Under the new Irish law, by contrast, after 12 weeks’ pregnancy a woman will only be able to access an abortion if two doctors certify that the pregnancy places her health at risk of ‘serious harm’ (see explanation here). This is a much higher legal standard than under the Abortion Act 1967. Therefore, some women who need an abortion because of a risk to their health will still need to travel.
Fatal Foetal Anomaly and Disability
Only 4.5% of the women who travelled to England and Wales from Ireland for abortions in 2016 did so after 24 weeks. 4.3% of these women did so on the basis that there was a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be “seriously handicapped” (section 1(1)(d), Abortion Act 1967). Some of these were cases of ‘fatal foetal anomaly’. Under the proposed new law, thse pregnancies can be terminated in Ireland. However, unlike in England and Wales, disability will not be a ground for abortion under the new law (see explanation here). Women who need an abortion because of a diagnosis of a non-fatal foetal condition will still need to travel.
Health of Existing Children
0.2% of women from the Republic of Ireland who accessed abortion in England and Wales in 2016 (i.e. 6 women) did so on the basis that the pregnancy was under 24 weeks and continuing the pregnancy would “involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing children of the family of the pregnant woman” (section 1(1)(a), Abortion Act 1967). Under the proposed new Irish law these women could only access abortion within the first 12 weeks. Risk to the health of a woman’s existing children or family will not be a ground for abortion after 12 weeks.
Thus, based on the statistics from the UK Department of Health, some need for abortion will not be met under the new law. Where women seek an abortion but are not entitled to access it under the proposed new law it is likely that they will continue to travel to have abortions abroad if they can afford to do so.