Ireland’s abortion rate is very low by European standards

Colm O’Gorman spoke at the last meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly and made some remarkable comments about abortion rates and Ireland. Will they stand a close scrutiny? The short answer is, no.

He said: “Countries with more liberal abortion laws generally have a lower rate of abortions. If you look at the European standards, one of the lowest rate of abortion in Europe is in the Netherlands where they have perhaps the most liberal abortion laws in Europe. So there is no evidence, in any way, to support the floodgates will be open, and in reality there is no solid evidence that in any way supports the idea that Ireland has lower abortion rates than in any other country in Europe. All the evidence suggests at least the opposite.” (You can hear him here)

This is not correct. Ireland has lower abortion rates than any other country in Europe with more liberal abortion laws, even if we estimate generously the number of abortions performed illegally through abortifacient pills:  5.7 abortions per 1,000 women in Ireland aged 19-44.
In England and Wales the 2015 rate is 16.0, in Sweden is 20.9.  In Ireland we have one aborted baby for every 12 newborns, while in the Netherlands one every six newborns, in the UK and France it is one abortion for every four newborns and in Sweden one for every three newborns.

Here is the evidence.

First of all, by abortion rate we mean the number of abortions for every 1,000 women of childbearing age.  Childbearing age is not a precise concept and so statistics always refer to an age cohort. For instance, in my previous blog entry I was using data referring to women aged 15-39.

In this entry I will refer to 15-44 year old women. – this age group accounts for over 90%/95% of abortions [and live births] in Ireland, England and Wales. (958,000 in 2015 according to the Central Statistics Office) As we will see the difference is not significant.

What is the abortion rate for Ireland? It is not easy to give a precise answer because we need to combine official data sources and estimation. Let’s do it step by step.

In their Briefing Document presented to the Citizens’ Assembly, the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme says:

“In 2015, 3,451 women gave Irish addresses at UK abortion services. There has been a gradual decline in women availing of abortion services in the UK since 2001. In that year there were 6,673 abortions to women from Ireland in UK abortion clinics representing a rate of 7.5 per 1000 women. In 2015 the number had decreased to 3,451 representing a rate of 3.6 per 1,000 women [aged 19-44]” (p. 3)

 

So, according to the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme, 3.6 is the rate if we take into account only the abortions performed in the UK to women with an Irish address. To that figure we have to add the number of abortions performed in Ireland in accordance to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, which was 26 in 2015, and also those performed in the Netherlands, 16 in 2014 (we have no figures for 2015). The rate is still 3.6.

 

 

(Source: Briefing Document presented to the Citizens’ Assembly by HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme, p. 4. Number of abortions NL in 2015 is not available.  No abortions taking place under POL before 2014.)

This is an underestimation as we need to take into consideration also the number of Irish women who might be buying the abortion pill online rather than going to the UK. In 2015 the number of women living in Ireland and Northern Ireland seeking abortion pills through the main website (Women on Web) that sells abortifacients was, they say, 1,438. Note that the number includes Northern Ireland residents. Not all of those who perform an online consultation receive those pills. (Note 1)

Between 2010 and 2012, 1642 pills have been shipped. An average of 547 per year. These figures are likely to be higher for 2015. But even if we allow for a very generous estimation at 2,000, and add it to the numbers above we have about 5,500 abortions in 2015, which correspond to a generously estimated abortion rate of 5.7. This means 5.7 abortions per 1,000 women in Ireland aged 19-44.  (I previously estimated 5.86 the rate for women aged 19-39)

The abortion rate for women resident in England and Wales in 2015 is 16.0, almost three times the rate for Ireland. At that rate, we would have here more than 15,000 abortions per year, which is one abortion every four newborns!  Do we want that?

How do we compare to other countries? Very well. We have the lowest rate in Europe, even after allowing a generous estimate of the number of Irish women using the abortion pill. It is obviously lower, and may well be considerably lower, if we don’t make this big estimate. (Note 2)

 

(Source: Adapted from the 2016 abortion report of the Italian Minister for Health.)

 

As well as the abortion rate, another measure is the abortion ratio (number of abortions per 1000 live births). For 2015 the abortion ratio is 83.4 for Ireland (if 5,500 is the estimated number), 261.3 for the United Kingdom, 269.3 for France, 331.4 for Sweden. (Note 3) In other words, in Ireland we have one aborted baby every 12 newborns, while in the UK and France it is one abortion for every four newborns and in Sweden one for every three newborns.

The Netherlands, mentioned by Colm O’Gorman, is a country with a liberal abortion law but an alleged low abortion rate and ratio. However, they are still much higher than for Ireland, at 8.5 abortions per 1000 women and 158.4 abortions per 1000 live births, respectively. One aborted baby for every six newborns.

After having considered the evidence we can confidently say that Ireland has lower abortion rates than any other country in Europe with more liberal abortion laws. This is definitively the case even if estimate generously the number of abortions performed illegally through abortifacient pills.

It is true that abortion rates vary significantly among countries with liberal abortion laws, because other sociological factors besides the law must be taken into consideration, but it is also true that in the developed world, no country with liberal laws has an abortion rate lower than Ireland. The Netherlands, cited by O’Gorman, has a 8.5 rate. This is one of the many positive effects of the 8th amendment.

Colm O’Gorman claimed that “there is no solid evidence that in any way supports the idea that Ireland has lower abortion rates than in any other country in Europe. All the evidence suggests at least the opposite.”

Where is your evidence Mr O’Gorman? Where is your solid evidence?

 

 

Notes

  1. “The number of women to whom medications are shipped is inevitably fewer than the number filling out an online consultation because some change their minds, experience a spontaneous miscarriage, decide to travel to obtain TOP abroad, or decide to continue their pregnancy”.   Aiken ARA, Gomperts R, Trussell J. Experiences and characteristics of women seeking and completing at-home medical termination of pregnancy through online telemedicine in Ireland and Northern Ireland: a population-based analysis. BJOG 2016.
  2.  The only other European countries that also have low abortion rates are Malta and Poland. Poland, which has a strict law, has also a very low rate but it is more difficult to estimate the number of abortions of Polish women performed abroad.
  3. There were 65,909 live births in Ireland in 2015.
  4. Validity of 15-44 age group

 

Number of abortions
England and Wales, total
Under 15 509
45 and over 707
All 186824
% between 15 and 44 99.34912
Done in England and Wales on non-residents
All Ireland
Under 15 42 18
40 and over 410 292
All 5190 3451
% between 15 and 39 91.29094 91.0171
England and Wales (residents)
40-44 7739
45+ 707
8% of women 40+ having abortions are 45+
Generous estimate for Ireland, 20% instead of 8%
Done in England and Wales on Irish residents
Under 15 18
45 and over 58.4 (20% of 292)
All 3451
% between 15 and 44 97.78615
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