Recent statistics on abortion: UK

On 6 October 2014, the House of Commons Library published its latest Statistics on abortion, (Standard Note SN04418), which

“presents statistics on abortion in England & Wales, as well as Scotland. Numbers of abortions and rates per 1,000 women aged 15-44 are provided and a brief time series is presented. The period of gestation when the abortion took place is also considered as well as the method of abortion”.

Whilst this 6-page summary will be helpful as an aide memoire for parliamentarians seeking the basic statistics, which is after all its raison d’être[1], others with an interest in the area will find it contains only limited interpretation of the data, and provides no links to the more comprehensive information that is available for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

[The Standard Note was updated on 14 March 2016, the revised version of which is here. However, the following discussion relates to the data included in the 2014 Note, which also bears the same report number, 04418]

Comment

Statistics relating to abortion are collected by the Department of Health: those for England and Wales for 2013 were published on 12 June 2014; the detailed 62-page report is available here, and the data in Excel format, here.

For the devolved administrations, the Northern Ireland Executive’s Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) published statistics relating to medical abortions and terminations of pregnancy during 2012/13 on 14 January 2014, and ISD Scotland, a division of NHS NSS, published Abortion Statistics: Year ending 31 December 2013 on 27 May 2014 The Standard Note provides no link to either of these more detailed sources of statistical information.  However, in relation to Scotland, it notes:

“[t]here is a clear link between abortion rate and levels of deprivation.  The rate is 14.4 per 1,000 women in areas of high deprivation, compared to 8.2 per 1,000 women for the least deprived areas in Scotland,”

and with regard to Northern Ireland[2] comments:

“There were 5,469 abortions to non-residents in 2013, 67.3% of which were for women from the Republic of Ireland and 14.7% from Northern Ireland. The number of abortions to nonresidents remained relatively unchanged between 9,000 and 10,000 in the period 1995 to 2003. Since 2004 the number has fallen year on year and the 2013 total is the lowest in any year since 1969.”

More generally, in terms of age, marital status & ethnicity,

“The crude abortion rate [E&W] in 2013 was highest at 28.5 per 1,000 for women aged 20-24. The under-16 abortion rate was 2.6 per 1,000 women and the under-18 rate was 11.7 per 1,000 women, both lower than in 2012. The rates for younger age groups in 2013 were lower than in 2012, most markedly for the under 18 age groups.

81% of abortions in 2013 were carried out for single women (of which 25% were single without a partner and 51% with a partner), a proportion that has been rising from about two thirds since 1997.

The recording of ethnicity, as self-reported by the women involved, was introduced in 2002. In 2013, 76% of women having an abortion were White, 9% Black or Black British and 9% Asian or Asian British.”

The point within the gestation period at which a termination is undertaken is fundamental to considerations of the ethics of abortion, the practicalities involved, and provisions within the 1967 Abortion Act, of which only section 1(1)(a) imposes the 24-week limit.  For England and Wales:

“The majority of abortions (91% in 2013) are performed at or under 12 weeks’ gestation. In 2013, 79% were at or under 9 weeks and a further 12% at 10-12 weeks. The proportion of abortions at under 10 weeks has increased since 1997, and the proportion at over 13 weeks has reduced. Abortions where gestation has exceeded its twentieth week account for 1% of the total. There were 2,753 such abortions in 2013.”

The classification of the statutory grounds for abortion is summarized below:

Subject to the provisions of section 1 of the 1967 Act, a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith—

A legally induced abortion must be certified by two registered medical practitioners as justified under one or more of the following grounds:

A. The continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater than if the pregnancy were terminated (Abortion Act, 1967 as amended, section 1(1)(c)).

B. The termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman (section 1(1)(b)).

C. The pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman (section 1(1)(a)).

D. The pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing children of the family of the pregnant woman (section 1(1)(a)).

E. There is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped (section 1(1)(d)).

In the case of an emergency, certified by the operating practitioner as immediately necessary:

F. To save the life of the pregnant woman (section 1(4)).

G. To prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman (section 1(4)).

With regard to terminations within the 24-week criterion, the majority of those in England and Wales in 2013 were under ground C, (97%), and there was a similar percentage in Scotland, (94.5%). The proportion of ground C abortions has risen steadily since 1997, with a corresponding reduction in ground D cases. Ground F or G abortions are rare.

For circumstances in which the child would be born handicapped, ground E, there were 2,732 abortions (1%): congenital malformations were reported for 23% of cases and chromosomal abnormalities in 37% of cases. Accounting for 22% of all ground E cases, Down’s syndrome was the most commonly reported chromosomal abnormality.  The Note makes no reference to the point at which such terminations were carried out. However, the final report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Abortion on the Grounds of Disability, published on 17 July 2013, contains this information:

“According to Department of Health statistics, 2,307 abortions (1% of all abortions) were carried out in 2011 under Ground E of the Abortion Act 1967, due to the risk that the child may be born with a fetal disability. 144 of these abortions took place after 24 weeks.

During oral evidence, the Commission was told that pregnancies have been ended up to the 34th week. In 2011, 29 abortions took place after 32 weeks.”

Although the issue of gender-specific abortion was per se beyond the remit of the Standard Note, earlier this year the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe) (Con), stated inter alia[3],

“It is not usually possible to identify the sex of a baby until the second ultrasound scan, which takes place at around 18 to 21 weeks’ gestation.  In 2012, nearly 98% of abortions were performed before 18 weeks’ gestation, so the gender of the foetus is not known for most abortions …

Lords Hansard, 3 Apr 2014, Vol 753 (141) Col. GC291

This is consistent with data in the Department of Health Report for 2013, supra, which indicated that in relation to gestation, of the total 185,331 legal abortions: 146,411, (79%) were at 3-9 weeks; 22,240, (12%) at 10-12 weeks; 12,973, (7%), at 13 to 19 weeks; and 1,853, (1%) at 20 weeks and over[4].  Whilst these provide a convenient explanation why data on gender-specific abortion are not available, they do not demonstrate that it is not occurring.

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[1] The Note carries the standard caveat “[t]his information is provided to Members of Parliament in support of their parliamentary duties and is not intended to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. It should not be relied upon as being up to date; the law or policies may have changed since it was last updated; and it should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice or as a substitute for it . .. “

[2] The Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland.

[3] Other aspects of the short debate in the Lords are reviewed here.

[4] Sharp-eyed readers will spot that the total of these (presumably rounded) figures is 99%, and there are therefore a further 1,853 terminations, (1%), to be accounted for within the total.

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