Abortion numbers reported by providers fell sharply last year

Medical practitioners asked to review records after decline of 2,000 from 2020 total, down to 4,577

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The number of abortions reported to the Department of Health last year fell to 4,577, some 2,000 fewer than in 2020, giving rise to concerns about whether GPs have submitted full notifications.

The third annual report on terminations of pregnancy, published on Wednesday by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, shows a total of 4,513 early medical abortions were notified by GPs to the department.

In addition, 53 were performed in hospitals on the grounds of fatal foetal anomaly (FFA), nine were due to a risk to the life or health of the mother, and two on the grounds of a risk to the life or health of the mother in an emergency.

In 2020 a total of 6,577 were notified, while there were 6,666 in 2019.

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Both GPs and hospitals are legally obliged to notify the Department of Health of each abortion and the grounds on which it was provided.

While 4,577 abortions were notified as having taken place, HSE data show GPs submitted claims for reimbursement in respect of 6,700 second consultations for abortion care, under the primary care reimbursement scheme.

The numbers conducted on the grounds of FFA, which take place in hospitals, were also down significantly — from 97 in 2020, and 100 in 2019. Similarly with risk to life or health, there were 20 in 2020 and 21 in 2019, and in an emergency there were five and three respectively..

Responding to the figures, Mr Donnelly said he had asked all 413 GPs contracted to provide abortion services, as well as medical practitioners in hospitals, to “review their records and paperwork as a matter of priority” and ensure they have notified the department of all abortions that took place last year.

HSE cyberattack

In a supplementary note, published with the report, the department said its officials noted notifications decreased markedly last year from May “and continued to be considerably lower than the previous two years for the months of June, July and August.

“Numbers began to broadly return to 2019-2020 levels from September onward, with some months showing a higher level of notifications compared to 2019-2020.”

It says the “precipitous fall in notifications” coincided with the cyberattack on the HSE, “which also briefly impacted the Department”. It noted that last year was “enormously challenging” for GPs. “As such it seems fair to conclude that the cyberattack was impactful in the large reduction in notifications during those months, as many healthcare facilities had to manage their services, referrals and other standard practices in the absence of established digital solutions.”

The HSE has followed up with the nine hospitals that provided abortion services last year, and “most hospitals felt their number of terminations was lower in 2021 and it was confirmed that their notifications for 2021 had been submitted”.

Under the terms of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 the Minister must complete a report providing data on abortions the previous year, by the end of June. The 2021 report was laid before the Oireachtas on Wednesday.

“The statutory framework does not permit the use of alternative data sources other than the notifications received directly by the Minister from medical practitioners. However, in the interests of openness and transparency, the Minister wishes to highlight this matter alongside the publication of the 2021 report,” the statement said.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times