Irish Abortion Rates Continue to Spike, 5 Years After Abortion Referendum

The latest statistics undermine claims by Ireland’s abortion proponents that recourse to the life-destroying procedure would be ‘rare’ following legalization.

The Irish flag flies above the General Post Office in Dublin.
The Irish flag flies above the General Post Office in Dublin. (photo: Shutterstock)

DUBLIN — “If the amendment is approved in a referendum, abortion in Ireland will become safe, legal and rare,” Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, said in January 2018, announcing his government’s plan to hold a vote to remove the constitutional right to life previously granted to unborn children.

But, despite Varadkar’s prediction, in the five years since the referendum passed, abortion has been anything but rare in Ireland.

May 25 marks the fifth anniversary of that 2018 referendum, in which the Irish electorate voted almost two-to-one — 66.40% to 33.60% — to remove the so-called “life equality” clause from the constitution that had guaranteed the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child.

The law that resulted from the referendum permits abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks and, after that, when the life or health (including the mental health) of the mother is judged to be at risk. An abortion can also take place much later than 12 weeks if the baby has an abnormality likely to kill the child within 28 days of birth.

Before the referendum, Irishwomen who wished to obtain an abortion traveled to England and Wales. Statistics for 2018 show that 2,879 women traveled to Britain for that purpose. However, by 2019 — the first year the new abortion regime was operational in Ireland — the number of women ending their pregnancies via abortion in Ireland had risen to 6,666. The following year, statistics reveal that 6,577 abortions were carried out despite COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, while in 2021 6,700 abortions were carried out.

And in 2022, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said that 8,500 Irishwomen had ended their pregnancies under the new law — almost a threefold increase from the 2018 numbers when women traveled to Britain for abortions.



Megan Ní Scealláin, spokeswoman for The Life Institute pro-life advocacy group, described the rise as “heartbreaking.”

“We are seeing a deeply shocking, catastrophic rise in the number of babies being killed. It’s profoundly disturbing and indicative of the government’s failure to offer real options to women [in crisis pregnancies],” she told the Register.

Eilis Mulroy of Ireland’s Pro-Life Campaign pointed out that the 2022 statistics represent an almost 27% increase in just one year.

Mulroy described this as “a devastating trend, which further illuminates how the Irish abortion rate is quickly spiraling.”

“This is the result of a government which has shown a complete lack of interest in providing women in unplanned pregnancies with real alternatives to abortion,” she told the Register. “We know that most abortions are caused by socioeconomic factors. A total of approximately 28,500 abortions in just four years is symptomatic of government failure across the board to provide families with the basic confidence and supports required to raise a child in Ireland today.” 

The fifth anniversary of the abortion referendum coincides with the publication of a review into the operation of the legislation. The review, which is due to be considered by the parliamentary heath committee in coming months, recommends the ending of a so-called “cooling-off period” — a three-day wait between an initial consultation on an abortion and the ending of the unborn child’s life.

The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) has called for this mandatory waiting period to be removed, describing it as “paternalistic.”

Sinead Kennedy of the IFPA told an April 19  press conference: “One of the things that came up very much in the referendum was that people needed to trust women to make these decisions for themselves. I think, overwhelmingly, that was one of the key sentiments behind the enormous support behind repeal.

“We trust women to make these decisions. Women are capable of making difficult, complex, moral and ethical decisions,” she said.

However, pro-life activists point out that the waiting period has, in fact, saved the lives of unborn children whose mothers have reconsidered abortion after the initial consultation.

Figures released to pro-life legislator Carol Nolan for 2021 show that there were 8,284 initial abortion consultations, but 6,700 abortions.

According to Ní Scealláin of The Life Institute, “that suggests that more than 1,500 women changed their mind during the three-day period.”

“It also shows that the three-day waiting period may help women by giving valuable time to them to access support and help before making an irreversible decision,” she told the Register.

“It would be reprehensible for the government to scrap the three-day waiting period and take that time to think away from women,” she said. “They would be dramatically increasing the abortion rate and breaking the promise they made in 2018 to voters on abortion.”



There is some reason for optimism that the government may be sympathetic to the pleas of the pro-life campaigners and may be unwilling to accept calls to further liberalize the law, including extending the 12-week limit.

Varadkar said he would “be reluctant and uncomfortable” to make changes to the legislation enacted after the 2018 referendum, given he had assured people in the campaign there would be safeguards in place regarding the provision of abortion in Ireland.

“When I went out and others went out to look for a ‘Yes’ vote, we said that there would be safeguards, and that included things like the waiting period, things like the protection of conscientious objections,” Varadkar said on April 21, speaking to reporters at a doorstep media opportunity.

Micheál Martin, the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister), reiterated this stance, also speaking to reporters in April. 

“I think we are mindful of what we said to the people some years ago in the referendum, as to what the framework would be for the provision of services, and that’s a fair point that has to be taken on board,” he said.

David Quinn, director of the pro-family think tank The Iona Institute, is a veteran campaigner who was a key voice in the “No” campaign back in 2018. He believes that holding politicians to their promises is key.

He points out the fact that, in the 139-page review of the legislation, the word “rare” does not appear once.

“Overall, the review shows no concern whatsoever for the welfare of the unborn child,” he told the Register.

“If the government wanted abortion to be rare, then the law is obviously not operating as intended,” he insisted.

Quinn believes that the issue of conscientious objection will emerge as a battleground. Abortion-rights activists have already pointed to the fact that eight of the country’s 19 maternity hospitals or units do not perform abortion.

“A big reason is that many doctors and nurses are still pro-life. The review wants more medics subjected to what it coyly describes as ‘values clarification’ sessions — that is, workshops aimed at making them change their minds about abortion.”

“In other words, the review wants to convert pro-life doctors and nurses into pro-choice ones,” Quinn said.


Looking to the US

Five years on, campaigners in Ireland are heartened by the successes of the pro-life movement in the United States.

Niamh Uí Bhriain is the organizer of the annual All Ireland Rally for Life, which draws inspiration from the long-running U.S. March for Life. This year, thousands of marchers are expected to take to the streets of Dublin on July 1.

For Uí Bhriain, the dramatic increase in abortions is a wake-up call. “That’s why the Rally for Life is so important, to stand against the further dilution of the right to life and the abandonment of vulnerable women and children,” she told the Register.

Michael Kelly is the editor of The Irish Catholic. He writes from Dublin.

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