Tuesday 6 August 2013


This summer Ireland has been smoking with the heat of discussion about abortion.  A couple of weeks ago, President Higgins signed into law extremely limited conditions in which a termination might be permitted to take place in The Holy Land.  Predictably, because so few politicians and commentators are women of child-bearing age, there was a lot of vaporing on behalf of fetuses by those who would never be at the personal hard-end of a decision on the matter.  But enough of the talk (too much of that already!), let's look at the numbers.
Data type 2011 2012 Rate
IrAddr-Abortions 4,149 3,982 0.09%
UK-Abortions 189,931 185,122 0.29%
The Rate is based on the population of RoI being 4,588,000 (2011) and UK 63,182,000 (2011), the latter being about 14x greater than the former.  A month ago when these numbers first became available (Newstalk FM has just picked up on it today - hence the post) the Irish Times reported that the number of Irishwomen having an abortion in the UK had fallen: "The figures represent a reduction on the previous year’s statistics".  To which I patiently assert No They Haven't.  There is no statistically significant difference (ChiSq = 3.4; 1 d.f.; p > 0.05) between the numbers, so it would be more accurate and informative to say that the rate is unchanged.  The Irish Times has an excellent Science Correspondent in Dick Ahlstrom. I wish he'd give his Arts Block educated colleagues a brief talk about statistics, so they don't spout such discreditable nonsense in future.  Harumph!

The excellent A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995) is by John Allen Paulos and I've cited Edward MacNeil's Mathsemantics in February.  Both of these books encourage you to look at numbers like those in the table above and ask do they make sense?  These say that the rate of  abortions is three times higher in the UK than among those giving an Irish address.  I don't believe it.  According to the 2001 census, there are 850,000 Irish-born people living in the UK, and there are more people on that side of the water (about 6 million) who have an Irish grand-parent (and are thus eligible to play soccer for the national team and apply for an Irish passport) than such people in the Republic.  That latter number must be less than 4,588,000 because of our many wonderful-and-welcome Issei immigrants.  So there can't be many young women without a friend-and-relation in the UK who will give them a bed for the night while they deal with a problem.

So, by applying common sense and internal consistency to the missing data, I reckon that the number of Irish women travelling to the UK for abortions is somewhere between twice and three times the number which is reported because it is the only number with a proper paper trail.  I suppose that many (older?) members of the Catholic church would believe these missing unbaptised data have been assigned to Limbo.

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