Government figures released on Tuesday reveal that 5,190 women from other countries traveled to the UK to have an abortion, with people from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland making up 66 percent and 16 percent of those making the trip, respectively.
The report follows a year-on-year decrease in the number of non-resident women seeking an abortion in England and Wales. Last year marked the lowest number of women seeking an abortion from outside the country of any year since 1969.
But abortion rights activists say that the UK Department of Health statistics do not show the full story, arguing that they underplay the true number of women in Ireland who attempt to access abortion. The Abortion Support Network, which provides financial assistance and accommodation for Irish women looking to travel abroad for abortions, says that it has seen a steep increase in the number of calls from women who are desperate to end their pregnancies.
"We know that these numbers are underrepresented because they only show the people who give an Irish, Northern Irish, or Isle of Man address at a UK clinic," says Abortion Support Network director Mara Clarke. "That discounts the many people who stay with friends or family members when they come over, or give the address of the bed and breakfast they're staying at. It also discounts the hundreds and thousands of women who get early abortion pills from the Internet."
Each year, the organizations Women on Web and Women Help Women together receive around 3,000 requests for help and support from Irish and Northern Irish women, which includes orders for the abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol.
Although the country is part of the UK, the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply to Northern Ireland; there, abortion is only allowed in cases where the pregnancy is life-threatening or the fetus poses a serious risk to the mother's physical or mental health. In the Republic of Ireland, abortion is illegal unless the woman's life is at risk.
Clarke points out that women may want to leave the country for an abortion but are prevented from doing so for a number of reasons. Asylum seekers, migrants, and international students based in Ireland may need a visa to travel to the UK, and in some cases the paperwork may not arrive before they hit the 24-week legal limit for abortion. Domestic violence victims may also struggle to leave the house for fear of repercussions from their partner.
"Abortion Support Network knows there are women who wanted to come over but [whom] we were unable to help," she explains, "because we couldn't make the Home office issue a visa and because we can't lock an abusive partner in the closet so they can come out for the day."
In these cases, women often go to torturous lengths to terminate their pregnancies—and at enormous financial risk. While Women on Web ask women for a voluntary 70–90 euro ($80–$100) donation, Abortion Support Network says it has counseled women who obtained abortion pills for 200 euros ($226), only for the medication not to turn up, or for only one of the two necessary pills to be delivered.
Even then, women run the risk of criminal punishment if they self-induce an abortion with online medication. In April, a 21-year-old from Belfast was sentenced to a suspended three-month jail term after she ordered the pills online to induce a miscarriage, only for her housemates to report her to the police. She was 19. Another Northern Irish woman is currently being prosecuted for obtaining abortion pills for her underage daughter.
"The fact of the matter is," Clarke sighs, "no matter how many times we get a case that we think is the worst possible situation anybody has been in ever, we get a worse case."