Abortion is a fact of life

Abortion is accepted by policymakers and by the public as an acceptable means of fertility regulation.

Part two of the spiked-paper ‘Defending abortion - in law and in practice’

These days, abortion has an accepted place in fertility regulation. It is a method of family planning, in the sense that women use abortion to control whether or when they have children.

Women may not intend to rely on abortion as a means of family planning, but in reality that is often the way it works out. Women today expect to have control over their fertility and are expected to control their fertility. The need for ‘family planning’ is almost universally accepted, even among the most conservative thinkers.

But the evidence shows that women cannot manage their fertility by means of contraception alone. Contraception fails, and couples sometimes fail to use it effectively (1). A recent survey of more than 2000 women requesting abortion at clinics run by BPAS, Britain’s largest specialist abortion provider, found that almost 60 percent claimed to have been using contraception at the time they became pregnant, and nearly 20 percent said they were on the pill. Other studies have shown similar results (2).

The number of women who claim they experienced a split or slipped condom, or missed just a couple of pills, is undoubtedly inflated. Unprotected sex is stigmatised and some women requesting abortion may falsely claim to have used contraception, believing that they will be treated more sympathetically if the pregnancy is ‘not their fault’. But even so, it is clear that contraceptives let couples down.

All methods of contraception have a recognised failure rate (3). Whether the pregnancy occurred because the condom split or because the couple failed to get it out of the packet is not very important. The simple truth is that the tens of thousands of women who seek abortion each year are not ignorant of contraception - most have tried to use it and, indeed, may have used it and become pregnant regardless.

Women’s need for abortion is implicitly understood by policymakers and legislators. This is why abortion is provided at NHS hospitals throughout the country. Most democratic societies hold that women should expect, and be expected, to make a broader contribution to society than bearing and caring for the next generation. Motherhood is still regarded as ‘natural’ at some time in a woman’s life, but most people assume that motherhood will be an interval sandwiched on both sides by an income-generating ‘job’ if not a ‘career’. Girls from appropriate (middle-class) backgrounds are expected to progress to a university education.

Society currently places a high premium on ‘planned parenthood’. The belief prevails that children should be wanted, that parents should be able to support them, and be willing to make sacrifices for them. Growing social concern about ‘unfit’ or ‘problem’ parents does not easily co-exist with a disposition to force people to bear children they do not want and by their own admission cannot care for. This ethos creates a framework whereby abortion can in some circumstances be perceived as a ‘responsible choice’ even by social conservatives who would disapprove of abortion in principle.

Surveys of public opinion suggest widespread tolerance of legal abortion. A national opinion poll carried out three years ago by the UK’s main polling agency MORI found that 64 percent of those asked agreed that: abortion should be legally available to all who want it. 25 percent disagreed. The remainder neither agreed nor disagreed or said they did not know. The proportion of those who agreed had increased by 10 percent since 1980 (4). Birth Control Trust, for whom the poll was commissioned, suggested that this demonstrated a growing acceptance of legal abortion and a widespread belief that the law should not be used to prevent women ending pregnancies.

Women today are at particular risk of unplanned pregnancy. Sex is an accepted part of an adult relationship for which we do not expect to suffer unwanted consequences. Pregnancy is seen by an increasing number of women as an unwanted consequence that they are not prepared to adapt to. The fact that more women are delaying starting a family until they are in their thirties, that many are deciding to opt out of parenthood altogether, suggests increased numbers of sexually active women who do not want a child. Is it any wonder then that the number of abortions remains high?

A relatively high abortion rate is not necessarily a sign of the failure of sex education and family planning programmes. It may be a symptom of a society where women wish to combine a sex life with ambition. Of course it is preferable for unwanted pregnancies to be prevented rather than ended. Abortion is safe, but contraception is safer and more convenient. Nevertheless, today abortion is an essential method of family planning and should be accepted it as such.

For further facts and stats about abortion, visit BPAS http://www.bpas.org

Ann Furedi is director of communications at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

Dr Ellie Lee is lecturer in sociology at the University of Southampton, UK, and co-ordinator of Pro-Choice Forum.

Read on:

Part three: The case for ‘late’ abortion

Part four: Abortion for fetal abnormality

Part five: Is abortion a health risk?

(1) Furedi, Ann. 1997. The Causes of Unplanned Pregnancy, available at Pro-Choice Forum (Resources / Related Issues)

(2) MORI Consumer Survey of 1258 women aged 16 to 49, throughout the UK, conducted in March 1993 on behalf of Roussel Laboratories

(3) Vessey et al. 1982. Efficacy of different contraceptive methods. Lancet 8276 :841-3; Wheble et al. 1987. ‘Contraception: failure in practice. British Journal of Family Planning 13: 40-5; Ranjit et al. 2001. ‘Contraceptive Failure in the First Two Years of Use: Differences Across Socioeconomic Subgroups’. Family Planning Perspectives 33 (1): 19-27

(4) Furedi, Ann. 1998. ‘Wrong but the right thing to do: public opinion and abortion’. Lee E. (Ed.). Abortion Law and Politics Today. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press

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