A record number of women from Northern Ireland are opting to go to England and Wales to terminate a pregnancy, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
Figures released by Health Minister Michael McGimpsey show that there were 1,343 abortions carried out in England and Wales where the woman gave a home address in Northern Ireland in 2007 — the majority of which would be regarded as illegal here.
According to the Department of Health statistics, 6,400 abortions were performed on women from Northern Ireland in hospitals in England and Wales between 2003 and 2007.
The latest figure was a rise of 48 on that for the overall 2006 tally while 179 more women went for abortions in 2007 compared to 2005.
However, it is feared that the number of women being forced to leave Northern Ireland for a termination is actually much higher as the figures do not include numbers of women travelling to Scotland or further afield for an abortion.
While abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland, it can be carried out when a pregnancy causes a severe risk to the life of the mother and Mr McGimpsey has revealed that 99 such abortions were performed on women in Northern Ireland hospitals in 2007 — a rise of 36% from 2003.
The figures prompted a leading pro-life organisation to today call for the circumstances behind the terminations in Northern Ireland hospitals to be opened to public scrutiny.
Precious Life also said that the doctors who performed the 99 abortions in 2007 must be challenged about the legality of their actions and also called for police investigations into any believed to have been carried out illegally.
Director of the pro-life charity, Bernie Smyth, said: “These figures raise all sorts of further questions and we will be working to establish the answers in the New Year. A termination is illegal unless the life of the mother is at risk and there is a question as to whether these abortions were legal or illegal.
“It is a serious offence to take the life of an unborn child. We want to know why each and every one of these 99 abortions were carried out. I have been given information by someone with inside knowledge who said that an abortion was carried out at a hospital in Northern Ireland because the child was disabled.
“We want to know what happened to the bodies of these babies and whether death certificates were issued. If any of the abortions were illegal, the medical staff involved must be questioned by police and charged.”
The right of women in Northern Ireland to have a termination remains a controversial subject which threatened to collapse the Assembly earlier this year as a number of MPs from the mainland tabled a Parliamentary motion to bring legislation governing abortions in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.
Diane Abbott, one of the MPs who has campaigned to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, said the figures released by Mr McGimpsey show there is a need for women to be able to access the same level of healthcare in Northern Ireland as the rest of the UK.
“The number of abortions and the number of women travelling from Northern Ireland to the British mainland for abortions continue to rise,” she said.
“This gives the lie to the claim by some politicians in the province that there is no demand for safe and legal abortion in Northern Ireland.
“In particular, I believe that women who travel from Northern Ireland to the British mainland for an abortion should not have to pay for the abortion. It is long overdue that this manifest unfairness was ended.”
Alliance MLA Anna Lo, a pro-choice campaigner, also said that the issue of legalising abortion in Northern Ireland is a matter of equality.
“Women who travel abroad for abortions are having to pay about £2,000 on top of travel and accommodation expenses so this is also a class, economic and social issue, and there are some women who can’t afford this option and go on to the internet to get tablets which cause a pregnancy to terminate, which can lead to medical complications,” she said.
Meanwhile, Dr Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, said the figures prove there is a need for a Northern Ireland-based service whereby women can undergo an abortion without stigma or judgement.
“This highlights that fact that women in Northern Ireland will at certain stages in their life need to have an abortion and these women should be treated with respect and compassion,” she said.
“Politicians must recognise that women in Northern Ireland will always need abortions and they should fulfil their statutory obligation by legislating for easier access to abortions in Northern Ireland.”