The 2021 abortion figures for Ireland were published in recent weeks. The full report and a supplementary note are available here. There were 4,755 abortions reported to the Department of Health in 2021, which is substantially below previous years. However, the supplementary note explains that the payouts to abortion providers was in line with previous years, and would suggest a total number of abortions that is closer to 6,700 – more or less in line with the previous two years, and still well above even conservative estimates of the number of abortions Irish women were having before we legalised abortion.
Before reading the rest of this post, we invite you to take a minute to ponder this figure. Yet again, more than seven thousand women in Ireland (when we include those who traveled to Britain for an abortion in 2021) felt that ending their baby’s life was the best way forward for them. Five hundred and eighty three women every month. Nineteen women every day. Maybe that number means nothing to you, but if so, we believe you are in the minority.
Those of you who really don’t see anything significant in the sheer number of abortions taking place in this country might come at this from the perspective that abortion is simply another reproductive healthcare measure, and there is nothing significant about it. While we happen to disagree with the notion that abortion is healthcare, if abortion truly is healthcare, then why not treat it like any other healthcare service and compile epidemiological data? In other words, why is there next to no detail in the abortion statistics compiled by the Department of Health?
Thanks to the Covid pandemic, most people now have some awareness of the existence of epidemiology as a branch of medicine, even if they don’t know what it actually is or means. According to the US Center for Disease Control, “epidemiology is the study (scientific, systematic, and data-driven) of the distribution (frequency, pattern) and determinants (causes, risk factors) of health-related states and events (not just diseases) in specified populations (neighborhood, school, city, state, country, global).” Note that epidemiology is specifically not just about the incidence of disease – it covers health-related states and events. One example of a health-related state is pregnancy. Naturally, it follows that if abortion is healthcare, then an example of a health-related event would be abortion.
Think back to when the Covid pandemic was causing maximum damage. Think how many charts and graphs and figures we were shown. Imagine how difficult it would have been to craft any kind of coherent public health response to Covid without epidemiological data. Forget difficult; it would have been all but impossible.
What’s more, we know from epidemiology what kind of data is important and what is not when trying to influence the incidence of any particular disease or health-related behaviour. Heart disease, for example, is related to obesity, smoking and stress. Obesity, in turn, is related to genetics, income, and physical activity. These data are all helpful in trying to understand and influence obesity and heart disease at a population level. And unfortunately, when it comes to the epidemiology of abortion, Ireland lags far behind its peers.
The official Irish statistics provide headline figures of:
1) the number of abortions that took place under each of the four legislative grounds (with the vast majority taking place in “early pregnancy”);
2) the counties where the abortions took place;
3) the month in which they took place.
That’s it. We have no data at all on the person requesting the abortion – nothing on age, employment, education level, obstetric and gynacological history, urban or rural dwelling, current or historical contraceptive use, nothing. When we compare this to the detailed annual reports available from England and Wales, Scotland, Sweden, or New Zealand, to name a few, the lack of any real information in the Irish data is quite stark. Even the Netherlands, which provides a small amount of detail compared to its peers, still provides context and detail that Ireland doesn’t. For example, the Netherlands reports on trends over time, and calculates and reports the abortion ratio (number of abortions as a proportion of live births).
We here at the Minimise Project are pretty transparent about our desire to reduce the abortion rate in Ireland – we think this is so important that we included this concept in our very name. While we understand that there are some people who think it makes no difference at all how many abortions occur per year in Ireland, we believe those people are in the minority. Most people think we should have fewer abortions, but in order to have fewer abortions, we need more data. Proper socio-demographic data would help us identify who is more likely to have an abortion, why they are more likely to have one, and how to reduce that number.
If you, like us, believe that reducing the abortion rate is a good thing, then please join us in campaigning for more data to make this a reality.
Muireann and Gavin