In 2019, available figures estimate that 4.4% of pregnancies of Northern Ireland residents ended in abortion. This compares to an estimated 24% of pregnancies in England and Wales in 2018 ending in abortion. Globally, an estimated average of 29% of pregnancies from 2015–2019 ended in abortion. This explainer article examines the accuracy and completeness of these figures, particularly for Northern Ireland.

In an article published in the News Letter, a claim was made that there were 209,519 pregnancy terminations in England and Wales in 2019, “meaning just under 25% of all pregnancies ended in abortion.” 

In the same article, Alliance for Choice were quoted stating that this is a fact globally, “and [Northern Ireland] is no exception in that regard.” 

The focus of the article was the Northern Ireland framework for the provision of pregnancy terminations, following the change in legislation that came into force on 22 October 2019, and effectively a prediction of the potential number of abortions in Northern Ireland if its rate was similar to other regions and countries.

How are pregnancies categorised?

A pregnancy is defined as ending with a live birth, stillbirth, miscarriage, or an (induced) abortion. For the purpose of this article, pregnancy figures exclude those that end in miscarriage and the term ‘abortion’ refers to induced medical/surgical abortions.

What’s the situation around the world?

The Lancet estimated that globally (reviewing data from 166 countries), 29% of pregnancies from 2015–2019 ended in an abortion. This was an increase from 25% during the period 1990–1999. The variance between regions of the world is presented in the following graph.

Source: The Lancet.

What percentage of pregnancies end in abortion in England and Wales?

The ONS provides data on conceptions in England and Wales. For example, in 2018 (most recent data available), there were 839,043 conceptions, of which 24% ended in abortion (this corresponds to the ‘25%’ figure quoted by the News Letter above).

According to the Department of Health and Social Care (England and Wales), 209,519 abortions took place in England and Wales in 2019 (which was quoted by the News Letter above). 

Of these abortions, 207,384 were to residents of England and Wales.

What percentage of pregnancies end in abortion for Northern Ireland residents?

In 2019, figures from the Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) record 22,453 births (Figure1a&1bData), 67 stillbirths (Table 1a), and eight abortions carried out in Northern Ireland. For the same year, abortions recorded in Great Britain included 1,014 in England and Wales for women from Northern Ireland, and fewer than ten carried out in Scotland for patients with a postcode in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, official figures estimate that 4.4% of pregnancies ending in abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019 (1,032/23,552). This approximates to the ‘4.3%’ figure quoted by the News Letter. 

However, these official figures do not tell the whole story about pregnancies that end in abortion in Northern Ireland. 

How complete are the abortion figures for Northern Ireland?

The figures cited above for abortions for women from Northern Ireland do not include those carried out using medication obtained by post.

The BMJ published an article that assessed the outcomes of those who self sourced medical abortion through online telemedicine service, Women on Web. The study was able to confirm that 1,023 women in Ireland and Northern Ireland used the medications they received (mifepristone and misoprostol) to end their pregnancies, in the years 2010–2012. The authors did not distinguish between women who lived in Ireland and Northern Ireland, because of the practice of women using addresses outside of Ireland to circumvent Irish law on the supply of medicines by mail order.

In the Opening Statement to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, it was stated that 1,748 women on the island of Ireland requested abortion medication in 2016. This figure represents 44% of the 3,989 women from Northern Ireland and Ireland who travelled to England or Wales for a termination that year. The number of women on the island of Ireland who requested abortion medication through Women on Web increased more than threefold from 2010 (548 women) to 2016 (1,748 women)

Since 2014, additional providers have joined Women on Web in offering abortion telemedicine services, so these figures represent a lower bound on the number of women on the island of Ireland who have requested abortion medication. Besides the BMJ published study cited above, we do not know how many requests for abortion medication resulted in pregnancy terminations.

Following amendments in legislation in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, there is now more access to abortion, including telemedicine services. There has also been a slight downward trend in the number of women travelling to England and Wales for abortion. It is unknown whether there is a correlation between the two and/or how much the abortion rate will increase from the current estimated rate of 4.4%, as more data may or may not become available about medically induced abortions.

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