Saturday, October 17, 2009

Abortion Trends: Why It's Wrong To Say The "Floodgates" Have Ever Opened

The Guttmacher Institute have released their reports on worldwide abortions this month, comparing the years 1995 and 2003.

The most immediate trend you see (as shown on this graph in the Economist) is that the number of abortions appears to have decreased.  The second is that the number of safe abortions has decreased at a much faster rate than unsafe abortions, which have hardly decreased at all.

If you look closely, you'll see that most regions fall broadly into the same range - about 15-30 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 - and that in 2003, the rates of abortions tended to be slightly lower where it was legal and safe.

It seems fairly clear that the legality of abortion doesn't make a significant difference to the number of abortions (assuming the counting of unsafe abortions is reasonably accurate), but does make a huge difference to the safety of the women who feel they must, for whatever reason, make this difficult choice.

I couldn't help but immediately think of the UK, where the media are frequently outraged at how high teenage pregnancy and abortion rates are.  Headlines such as 'Abortion rates rocket to record high as Britain set to overtake US as world termination capital' are to be expected from the likes of the Daily Mail, and it is true that abortion rates in England and Wales continue to increase year on year.

England and Wales statistics are given on the Department for Health website and, handily, they're counted in the same way as their worldwide counterparts.  Between 1995 and 2003, the number of abortions here rose from 14.5 to 17.5 per 1000 women aged 15-44.  Shock!  Horror!  etc etc.

Of course, these numbers and the continuing upward trend are worrying, but "world termination capital" we are not.  A few quotes from the Guttmacher Institute's report:
"The most dramatic decline in abortion incidence occurred in Eastern Europe, a region where abortion is, for the most part, legal and safe: the rate fell from 90 to 44. The decrease coincided with substantial increases in contraceptive use in the region.

"The lowest abortion rate in the world is in Western Europe (12 per 1,000 women aged 15–44). The rate is 17 in Northern Europe and 21 in Northern America (Canada and the United States of America)."

So we have rather a lot less abortions than Eastern Europe, and we compare favourably with the region with the second lowest rate in the world.  We're also not threatening America yet, even though arguably we derive more of our culture from across the ocean than from across the English Channel.  And the American rate isn't even that high, compared to some other regions, so they're not the "world termination capital" either.

Don't let statistics get in the way of a good story, though.  There are enough numbers around that it isn't too hard to find one that makes England and Wales look bad, and most people won't notice if you don't compare like-for-like statistics. 

Which is why the Telegraph was able to get away with their story from 2007, 'Teenagers push abortion rates to record high'.  None of the numbers were strictly incorrect, but they were used to suggest something that wasn't strictly true:
"Despite huge Government spending on contraception education, 19-year-olds are now the most likely of any age group to have an abortion, with 35 in every 1,000 having the procedure, according to Department of Health figures.

"Previously the highest rate was among women aged 20-24 years. There is concern teenagers now see abortion as a form of contraception."

There you have it. Not only did they manage to erroneously compare a single age with a 5-year age group, but they even managed to squeeze in a criticism of Labour's policy on sexuality education (Think back to what contraception did to Eastern Europe's abortion rate, folks!) but also the old abortion-seen-as-contraception line so often trotted about by the likes of rent-a-quote Tory MP Nadine Dorries.

So, those figures: in each of the years 2005 and 2006, the highest rates of abortion for single ages were for 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 year olds.  All the figures were pretty close together (around 32-35 per 1000 women).  In both years (and every year since the Abortion Act in 1967) the 20-24 age group was the highest single age group, ahead of either 15-19 or 25-29.  In other words, the statistics were pretty similar, but overall rates were higher in 2006.  The proportion of teenagers to over-20s having abortions barely changed.

The article also gives the impression that there was a sudden leap in abortions between 2005 and 2006, compared to slow increases in previous years.  In fact, 2004-5 was the blip, with an unusually small increase in abortions.  So, the implication that the increase is the current Government's fault is also wrong.

The numbers of abortions in England and Wales are not something to be particularly proud of, but they're far better than much of the world, and at least women are able to access safe abortions, which is not the case for the whole of the British Isles.  In England and Wales in 2008, 17.1% of all abortions on non-residents were performed on women from Northern Ireland, and 67% on women from the Republic of Ireland.

It's a very emotive subject in Northern Ireland, where the Abortion Act does not apply.  It seems bizarre that over 1000 women every year have to travel to another part of their own country after having had to make an incredibly difficult decision that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they take very seriously indeed.  And then pay through the nose for the privilege.

Recently comedienne Kate Smurthwaite impersonated someone else in order to campaign on abortion rights in Northern Ireland, on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

It is being brought up by people such as Lord Morrow and Jim Shannon in Northern Irish debates about assisted suicide.  Again, perpetuating this myth that the Abortion Act in 1967 "opened floodgates" or led to "perfect children being killed ... because they are an inconvenience".

Yes, I'm sure there are some people with a rather flippant attitude to abortion.  And yes, numbers of abortions are increasing in England and Wales, relatively slowly.  But compare the number of women having safe abortions today to the likely smaller number of women who were having unsafe abortions before and, in a significant number of cases, dying.  Which would you rather have?

Far less important than the number of safe abortions is the number of unsafe abortions.  Which sadly hasn't changed very much worldwide.

There.  I hope you learned something.  I know I have.

[Edit: Oh yes, and I saw a story the other day about abortion in Australia (via @ClinicEscort).  And this story about abortion Spain is interesting too.  And an interesting blog post on hymens, which I've mentioned before.]


  1. Good post, glad you unpacked the stats as abortion facts always seem to be a cause for major forehead-mopping when as you've pointed out, things aren't as 'shocking' as they seem.

  2. Yes, it's all a bit concerning but by no means a lost cause. Our numbers are going up while many others are going down, but we're still in a comparatively 'safe' range.

    Sadly pragmatism doesn't sell papers, nor does it help people wield power, so I find myself more and more looking up raw data myself in order to form an opinion.

  3. Great post. Two more linkys for you:
    ABC RN Lateline report on Queensland abortion case and ABC RN Breakfast story on RU 486 drug

    Australia is a strange case: abortion is legal in Victoria, but not in Queensland. In this modern day and age, people are prosecuted for procuring safe abortions.

  4. Cheers Simon.

    A question I've had in my head is "Is an illegal abortion by definition unsafe?"

  5. Oh. Your second link is the first link again.

    Found a couple of links by searching but they're very brief, and the audio's no longer available.

  6. nicely written, it seemed to be mostly unbiased and factual.

  7. Oops, this was the second link: (there should be a link to the audio but it seems to have disappeared)

    I think we tend to think an illegal abortion is unsafe, but in this example they were illegally procuring a safe method (I understand, though I could be wrong as I know little about this) and therefore up for prosecution.


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