Comparing statistics on abortions


Madam, - I would like to clear up a point contained in John O'Reilly's reply (November 2nd) to my letter of October 30th Mr. O' Reilly has used two different measures of statistics: so, while some figures refer to abortions per live births, others refer to the rate of abortion per 1,000 women aged 15-44. This may greatly confuse readers.

In fact the abortion rate for the Netherlands is nine per 1,000 women, not 15.3 as might be implied. Also, the rate quoted for Ireland refers only to abortions for Irish women in Britain in cases where women gave an Irish address.

This excludes the very many women who do not give their Irish addresses, as well as the many women who travel to other EU countries where abortions are now often cheaper. And, as Mr O'Reilly aptly points out, Irish women on average do receive later-term abortions.

However, by highlighting the high rates of abortion in Britain, Mr O'Reilly brings up an important question: Why does the Netherlands have a rate of nine per 1,000 women aged 15-44, and England and Wales a rate of 18.3? The answer can be found in Dutch policy, which aims to prevent crisis pregnancy.

It remains a mystery to me why the anti-choice lobby devotes such energy to keeping abortion illegal in Ireland when policies such as free and accessible contraception and quality sex education have been shown to be a far more effective means of reducing the abortion rate. Perhaps someone could clear this conundrum up for me. - Yours, etc,

LOUISE CAFFREY, Choice Ireland, Orwell Gardens, Dublin 6.

Madam, - John O'Reilly (November 2nd) points out that Irish women have later abortions than residents of England and Wales. Unfortunately, this is true. However, the mathematics in the rest of his letter are a bit muddled.

The UK Department of Health's abortion statistics for England and Wales (2006), which he quotes, show a total number of 193,700 abortions (not 193,737 abortions on residents of England and Wales, which is what Mr O'Reilly cites). He may have misread the report, which is available online at

It is important to clarify the difference between the total number of abortions, and the number performed on residents of England and Wales, because women travel to England and Wales from other countries to have abortions. However, there are other mathematical errors that he makes by assumption, which are worth clarifying.

Mr O'Reilly's calculation that "the comparative figure for Ireland is 5,042, a rate of 5.2 per 1,000 Irish residents aged 15-44" is not a valid comparison. The term resident does not apply to abortion; abortion statistics, like all other maternity statistics, are described as (for example) numbers of abortions per thousand live births (in a given period), or abortions per women of childbearing age (at a particular point in time, or over a particular length of time). These are the measures of comparison. To count the numbers of abortions, and then to try to calculate the numbers of abortions per live births in one country (which Mr O'Reilly has done in the case of the Netherlands) and compare this rate with numbers of abortions per member of the population in another (Ireland) will obviously result in false statistics.

Abortion rates are meaningful only if the numbers of abortions are compared with the rates of other obstetric evaluations, such as the numbers of abortions versus numbers of live births in a given period, or the prevalence of abortion as a recorded event in the population of women of childbearing age, at a particular time, and so on.

Medical statistics are difficult for non-doctors and non-scientists to figure out, so it is easy for misunderstandings to take place.

In addition, it is very difficult to provide an abortion rate for Irish women, principally because abortions are not carried out here, and are not recorded in the UK or Holland as specifically "Irish" abortions. The "guesstimated" rate is based on the numbers of women who present for abortions in England and Wales giving an Irish resident address.

The plainest way to put it is that the best medical statistics available to us currently estimate that at least one in every 10 women of childbearing age in Ireland has already had an abortion. For example, the UK Department of Health statistics show that in 2006 there were 7,400 abortions for non-residents. Experience tells us that the vast majority of these women are resident in Ireland.

The Irish Family Planning Association is the organisation that has built up a significant and reputable body of research on Irish women and abortion over many decades, based on scientific knowledge and clinical expertise. - Yours, etc,

Dr J.M. HOMAN, Amiens Street, Dublin 1.