The impact of the law: Northern Ireland abortion rates

by Liam Gibson

The decision by the United States Supreme Court to overturn the precedent set by Roe v Wade marks a historic victory in what is perhaps one of the most successful grassroots campaigns since the Act of Parliament abolishing the British slave trade on 25 March 1807.1 This Act did not end slavery itself but made its eventual abolition seem inevitable. Similarly, the reaction of abortion advocates to recent events reflects a justified fear that the abolition of abortion might also be drawing near.

In Britain, the anticipation of this defeat had already led the abortion lobby to push for the complete decriminalisation of abortion. Now it has taken place they have stepped up their efforts. On Tuesday 28 June, a leading abortion advocate in the House of Commons called for an amendment to the forthcoming Bill of Rights2 “to protect a woman’s right to choose for every single woman in the United Kingdom”. She noted:

Roe v Wade gave American women a constitutional right to have an abortion. Currently, here in the UK, only women in Northern Ireland have their constitutional right to an abortion protected as a human right.”3

That MP was Stella Creasy and, despite being a member of the Labour Party, she played a central role when Theresa May’s conservative government decided in July 2019 to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Abortion Regulations, imposed by the government of Boris Johnson the following March, permit abortion on demand even for the purpose of sex selection, and up to birth on grounds of disability as well as in some other circumstances. It also sets the stage for the promotion of abortion to schoolchildren (including those in Catholic schools) through compulsory sex education and public information campaigns intended to overcome the stigma attached to the killing of the unborn. They also authorise restrictions on pro-life activities. These regulations are broadly in line with the shopping list of demands set out by the abortion lobby in Decriminalising Abortion in the UK.4 The authors of this book argue that there are no negative consequences to removing the meagre protection still afforded to unborn children under the criminal law in England and Wales. Written before the Northern Ireland regulations were published, it predicts that: “It is unlikely that the actual numbers of women accessing terminations will change significantly as a result of this decriminalisation of abortion…”5

The assertion that the law governing abortion does not have an important impact on the number of abortions that take place (s.l9) has been repeated so often that it has become a cliché.6 While it is true that the culture of a society affects the abortion rate, the law is a major influence in determining that culture. Examining the enormous changes in the abortion rate among women from Northern Ireland over the past ten years demonstrates just how big a factor the law is.

Until 22 October 2019, the primary legislation governing abortion in Northern Ireland was sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. This legislation punished those who procured an “unlawful miscarriage” with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Although no one convicted under it ever received such a sentence, the law recognised the gravity of the crime committed when the life of an unborn child was deliberately ended. While the rest of the UK had introduced liberal abortion in 1967, Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament in Stormont had rejected such a change, a decision that would save the lives of more than 100,000 babies over the following 50 years.7

Naturally, abortion advocates routinely denounced Northern Ireland’s law as Victorian but the principles on which it was based were in fact much older, stretching back to 450 BC when the Hippocratic Oath laid the foundation of Western medical ethics by prohibiting abortion and euthanasia. 

In the early years after the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act, ranks of taxis would wait at London airports to take women directly to abortion facilities. But even decades later, England saw significant levels of so-called “abortion tourism” from countries whose laws were less extreme. Of course, women from Northern Ireland would also make their way to England for abortion. In 2001, official statistics recorded 1,577 abortions on women from the Province.8 By 2016, however, this figure had fallen to 724. It is difficult to say definitively what factors led to this drop. If the decline in the number of women travelling from Northern Ireland to Britain for abortions could be explained by easier access to birth control or the introduction of more explicit sex education, then a similar reduction would have been seen in England and Wales. Instead, those figures rose from 176,400 in 2001 to 185,596 in 2016. Nor can we find the kind of evidence normally associated with illegal abortion — fatalities from sepsis, thrombosis and incomplete abortion — on a scale that would explain such a significant decline. During this period, however, abortion was a hotly contested issue, attracting considerable media attention and grassroots efforts for local politicians to resist pressure to liberalise the law. 

Statistics on lawful abortions carried out within Northern Ireland only began to be compiled in the mid-1990s. Abortion advocates speculated that hundreds were being performed but when the figure for 1996 was released it was 85. While the annual total fluctuated from 91 in 2006 to 38 in 2011, the mean average was approximately 69. In 2012, however, an audit of official figures revealed that these statistics combined the figures for elective abortions as well as procedures carried out following miscarriages. The annual number of elective abortions within Northern Ireland was roughly half of what it had appeared to be. By 2016, this number had fallen to 12 with a further 724 women from the Province obtaining abortions in England.

Tragically, this downward trend ended in 2017 when Theresa May’s government caved in to pressure and agreed to use public funds to pay for women from Northern Ireland to have abortions in Britain. On 29 June, it was announced that money from the Government Equalities Office would be used to reimburse providers such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Marie Stopes International for the cost of the abortions while it offered to pay the travel expenses of women normally resident in Northern Ireland. The “Central Booking System” became fully operational on 8 March 2018. That year there were 1,053 abortions for women from Northern Ireland, an increase of 192 in 2017. 

Despite decriminalisation, this system continues today but on a reduced scale. On 21 June, the health department in England and Wales issued its abortion statistics for 2021. There were 214,256 abortions carried out under the Abortion Act, the highest number since the Act came into effect. The report noted that: “…there were 161 abortions for women from Northern Ireland, a significant decrease from the 371 in 2020. Current levels remain substantially lower than the peak of 1,855 Northern Ireland resident abortions in 1990.” 

On 13 June 2022, however, the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland announced that 3,459 abortions have taken place since the introduction of the new regime in March 2020.9 The annual death toll is set to grow as Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is reported to have set a target for the health service to facilitate approximately 6,500 abortions per year.10 Mr Lewis who is the MP for the English seaside town of Great Yarmouth is not accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, yet in his determination to pursue this agenda, he has seized control over abortion policy from the devolved institutions. The only possibility of returning some level of power to the people of the Province lies in the court challenge being brought by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

In recent days, pro-abortion politicians in both the UK and the US have repeatedly claimed that laws restricting abortion do not reduce the incidence of abortion, they simply drive women to break the law. Experience demonstrates that this is untrue. Demand for abortion in Northern Ireland decreased when the law made it difficult to access. When a woman has to travel over 100 miles for an abortion she is much less likely to have one.11 On the other hand, when an insurance policy is in place and we don’t have to face the consequences of our actions, the phenomenon known as “moral hazard” makes us far more likely to take risks that we otherwise would not.12

While the detrimental social trends that came to dominate much of Western Europe were emerging in the 1960s, Northern Ireland was descending into three decades of violence and civil unrest. When a peace settlement was finally achieved, the complex political structures that were put in place may still have insulated the Province from some of the worst aspects of those trends, such as liberal abortion. In 2019, however, abortion advocates in Britain took the opportunity to impose one of the most extreme abortion regimes in Europe. During the 30 years of the Troubles, an estimated 3,720 people were killed as a result of the conflict.13 In just two years and three months since the Northern Ireland Abortion Regulations were introduced, that grim statistic is already so close that it will soon be passed.

  1. Parliament and the British Slave Trade, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/tradeindustry/slavetrade/key-dates/
  2. Bill of Rights, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-03/0117/220117.pdf
  3. Hansard, HoC, Women’s Rights to Reproductive Healthcare: United States, vol 717: debated Tuesday 28 June 2022, https://hansard.parliament.uk//Commons/2022-06-28/debates/75E02BEF-614E-489A-8303 F15015AD83A6/Women’SRightsToReproductiveHealthcareUnitedStates#contribution-82EA59E8-87DD-456D-8452-A296FD21E471
    NB There is no “constitutional right” to abortion recognised in UK domestic law. Nor is there a human right to abortion recognised by any of the nine core treaties of the United Nations or the European Convention on Human Rights.
  4. Sally Sheldon, Kaye Wellings (eds) Decriminalising Abortion in the UK: What Would It Mean? (Bristol University Press, Policy Press, 2020).
  5. Marie Fox and Goretti, “The effects of decriminalisation in Northern Ireland”, ibid p. 98.
  6. See for example: Simon Lee, The Twilight Zone (Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, 1993), section 19.
  7. Both Lives Matter, One Hundred Thousand: A report on the number of people who are alive today because of Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion. 2017, https://bothlivesmatter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Both-Lives-Matter-report-January-2017-Web.pdf
  8. All statistic are taken from Department of Health, Abortion Statistics for England and Wales, various years or Northern Ireland Department of Health, termination of Pregnancy Statistics various years.
  9. Hansard, HoL, Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022 vol 823: debated Tuesday 21 June 2022, https://hansard.parliament.uk//Lords/2022-06-21/debates/A2A5E4AE-5ED8-47FB-B333-42CBEE64D36E/Abortion(NorthernIreland)Regulations2022#contribution-1019BE2B-5CDD-4AF8-BCAA-0A1D6CBD3413
  10. Adam Kula “Health officials discuss possible 6,500 abortions per year in Northern Ireland”, News Letter (Belfast) 9 November 2020, https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/politics/health-officials-discuss-possible-6500-abortions-per-year-in-northern-ireland-3029084
  11. An increase in travel distance from zero to 100 miles to the nearest abortion facility reduces the abortion rate by 21% and increases the birth rate by 2.4%, according to C Myers, “Measuring the Burden: The Effect of Travel Distance on Abortions and Births”, (2021), IZA Discussion Paper Series, 14556.
  12. Prof David Paton explains moral hazard in the following terms: “Now economists know that people don’t just respond passively to changes in policy. Rather, we tend to change our behaviour in response to the incentives with which we are faced. When we have an insurance policy that protects us against the risks of, for example, our car being stolen, we tend to be a little less careful about preventing the risks from happening. This phenomenon has been the subject of endless studies and is termed ‘moral hazard’ by economists.” – David Paton “The Economics of Secret Abortions and Emergency Birth Control”, FAITH Magazine, July-Aug 2007.
    See also: Jonathan Klick, and Thomas Stratmann. “The Effect of Abortion Legalization on Sexual Behavior: Evidence from Sexually Transmitted Diseases.” Journal of Legal Studies, 32, 2, 2003, pp 407–33.
  13. David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea, Lost Lives, (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2007), 1552. cited by Fact Sheet on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, CAIN Archive – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland, https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/