Almost 200 women and girls travelled to Britain for abortions last year despite travel restrictions during the pandemic, the latest figures show.
The data, published on Wednesday by the British department of health and social care, show 194 abortions were performed for women or girls who gave addresses in the Republic of Ireland, with a further 371 for women and girls from Northern Ireland, in 2020.
A majority (132, 68 per cent) of the abortions sought by women from the Republic were on the grounds that to continue the pregnancy would risk “injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” – a decrease on the 83 per cent citing this reason in 2019.
In contrast, the proportion of abortions performed on the grounds of fatal foetal abnormality increased to 32 per cent last year (62 abortions), from 17 per cent in 2019.
Describing the fact that almost 200 women travelled out of Ireland during a global pandemic as a "damning picture of the exclusion of women from access to care," the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) said: "A principal reason for introducing abortion care was to end the unacceptable cruelty of forcing people to travel to another state for abortion services.
“In 2020, travelling abroad became its own health risk. Yet these women were forced by the law to leave the State to access health services in the UK, with heightened anxiety, stress, insecurity and expense during the pandemic.”
Though the almost complete ban on abortion was overturned with the repeal of the Eighth Amendment in May 2018, the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act which followed strictly limits access to abortion after the first trimester.
A medical abortion is available on request up to 12 weeks. Thereafter abortions are allowed only where there is a serious threat to the life or health of the mother or where two clinicians agree there is a fatal foetal abnormality. A review of the Act is to take place this year.
Niall Behan, IFPA chief executive, said the British figures showed "a clear unmet need for abortion care in Ireland".
“The pandemic has exacerbated the harms of denying abortion care. But women will still have to travel when the pandemic is over. This will still be cruel, inhumane and degrading, an unacceptable infringement on women’s right to respect for reproductive autonomy and self-determination.
“As society looks forward to once more taking the right to travel for granted, we can’t forget those on whom travel for abortion care is imposed by the law. The needs of these women should be central to the forthcoming review of the 2018 Act.”
The Abortion Rights Campaign said: “The current stringent law is forcing people to travel after receiving a complex diagnosis instead of providing care at home.
“Bearing in mind that the majority of the year was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, this means that hundreds of people had to travel between Ireland and Britain when both islands were under lockdowns. Despite abortion having been legalised in the Republic since January 2019, and decriminalised in Northern Ireland since October 2019, there clearly remain grossly unacceptable gaps in the service provision on this island.”
Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network, which assists women accessing abortion services in Britain, said the organisation had "helped people in all kinds of circumstances to travel to England for abortions. Some had abortions in Ireland which failed, pushing them past the 12-week limit. Others received a catastrophic foetal anomaly diagnosis, but two clinicians didn't agree the issue was bad enough to have an abortion in Ireland.
“Travelling for abortion during a pandemic meant dealing with limited flights, closed hotels, mandatory and expensive PCR tests and huge uncertainty.”