The number of Northern Irish women seeking abortions in England and Wales has increased by 22%, as terminations in the two countries reached their highest level, with women who have already had children and those aged 35 and over behind the rise.
National statistics for 2018 show there were 200,608 abortions for women resident in England and Wales, up 4% on 192,900 the previous year.
Clare Murphy, the director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: “The reasons for the increase in abortions for older women in England and Wales are complex.
“Accessible contraceptive services are often focused on the needs of younger women, and women over the age of 25 can in particular find themselves excluded from schemes providing free, pharmacy access to emergency contraception.
“As so many women in the UK rely on pills and condoms as their main methods of contraception, it is vital that there is swift access to emergency options when those methods fail or a pill is missed.”
She said greater access to services was also needed for women who are already mothers. There has been a sharp rise in the proportion of abortions among this group in the past decade.
In 2018, 56% of abortions were to women who had had one or more previous pregnancies that resulted in a live or stillbirth, up 5% on the previous year. In 2008, the figure was 48%.
The data published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) showed 1,053 women from Northern Ireland travelled in 2018, a rise of 192 on the previous year. Murphy said the growing number of Northern Irish women seeking abortions illustrated “how desperately women need to be able to access lawful services at home”.
She added: “These 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. 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.”
Overall abortion rates in England and Wales have increased in the past decade for women over 25. Among those aged 30 to 34, the rate rose from 15.6 per 1,000 women in 2008 to 19.9 last year.
For women aged 35 and over, it has increased from 6.7 per 1,000 to 9.2.
In total, 34,380 women aged 35 and over had an abortion in 2018, up 6% on the year before.
The 1967 Abortion Act, which allows for lawful terminations in the UK up to 24 weeks into pregnancy, and beyond in certain circumstances, does not apply in Northern Ireland.
An alliance of fundamentalist Protestant Christians, backed by the Democratic Unionist party alongside the Catholic church, continue to block any moves to reform the region’s strict anti-abortion laws.
Repeated attempts in the Northern Ireland assembly to change the law have been blocked by the DUP. Following the collapse of power sharing in January 2017, the minority Conservative government, which relies on DUP support in the House of Commons to stay in power, has resisted demands to impose reform.
Amnesty International said the increase in the number of women travelling for abortions showed Northern Ireland’s near total ban on terminations would not stop women making that choice.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, 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.”
Two years ago, the Labour MP Stella Creasy won cross-party support at Westminster to allow Northern Irish women to have abortions in NHS hospitals in England and Wales.
Up until Creasy’s amendment to the Queen’s speech in 2017, women from the region were charged about £900 for a termination if they travelled to a private clinic in Great Britain for the procedure.