The British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) says a sharp increase in criminal prosecutions for violations of abortion law in the North has had a chilling effect on doctors and kept the number of medical abortions and terminations here at an all time low.
The charity made the claim as the Department of Health revealed on Wednesday that there were 16 terminations of pregnancy in Health and Social Care hospitals during 2015/16, all carried out on women normally resident in the north of Ireland.
The Department revealed that during 2015/16 there were nine terminations of pregnancy carried out on women aged 30 years and over, five terminations of pregnancy carried out on women aged 25 to 29, and two on women aged 24 and under.
A BPAS spokesperson said: “The number of abortions performed in Northern Ireland continues to stand at a record low. Just 16 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland in 2015/16.
“Together with the previous year, this represents the lowest number on record. The figures released today also show that the number of terminations has more than halved over the past 5 years, with 43 terminations performed in 2010/11.”
The charity linked the decrease to what it claimed has been a sharp increase in prosecutions.
“It is no coincidence that the number of terminations performed in Northern Ireland has plummeted at the same time as we have seen a sharp increase in criminal prosecutions for violations of the abortion law.
“Over the last 12 months alone, three women have been taken through the courts, with one handed a 3-month suspended prison sentence.
“This rise in prosecutions has had a significant chilling affect on the medical community, and doctors now feel unable to sanction terminations - even in the limited circumstances permitted under Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law - for fear of prosecution,” the spokesperson stated.
BPAS said hundreds of local women are being forced to go to England in order to access abortion services.
“Consequently, women who may have previously been granted a termination in Northern Ireland are now being forced to travel England to access the care they need, at a huge financial and emotional cost.
“There is also evidence that women are increasingly resorting to buying abortion medication online, illegally, because they are unable to access treatment.
“In 2015, 833 women from Northern Ireland were forced to journey to England for abortion care. These are women who are resident in the UK, paying UK taxes, yet unlike women from England, Scotland, and Wales, they are not currently entitled to NHS-funded treatment, and must meet the cost themselves. It appears extremely unlikely that we will see abortion reform in Northern Ireland in the near future, due to the collapse of the last Executive.”