Abortion rates: it’s not the economy, stupid
Many thought the new UK abortion stats, released today, would show a link between the recession and rising abortion rates. They were wrong.
The national abortion statistics for England and Wales are published today, showing a small decrease in the total number of abortions from the previous year – 195,296 in 2008 compared with 198,499 in 2007. The abortion rate has also fallen slightly, from 18.6 per 1,000 resident women aged 15 to 44 in 2007 to 18.2 in 2008 (1). These small changes do not affect the upward trend in the abortion rate, which has risen steadily since abortion became legal in 1967.
The annual publication of abortion statistics tends to spark a predictable media debate. Some commentators fixate on the numbers and argue that there are just ‘too many abortions’; others worry about why the abortion rate in England and Wales continues its general rise despite increasing public money and resources being invested in sex education, contraceptive services and other ‘preventative’ measures.
This year, the economic recession has added another dimension to the global discussion about abortion rates and numbers, with a number of news articles claiming that more women are seeking abortion as a direct consequence of the economic climate. Headlines such as ‘Shaky economy means “bye-bye baby” for some’, ‘Dreams shelved as recession forces Britons to put lives on hold’, and ‘Vasectomies and abortions on the rise as economic meltdown hits US families’ present a clear image of couples choosing to terminate what, in more financially stable circumstances, would have been wanted pregnancies.
Recent, regional figures reported by abortion providers in the US have been used to substantiate this point, and some British journalists have been waiting on tenterhooks for the national abortion statistics and birth statistics to provide an apparent correlation between the recession and a rise in women opting for abortion. But the search for such a connection is simplistic and misleading.
As I have discussed at length in Abortion Review (2), it is true that there is an historical correlation between economic recessions and a fall in the birth rate, both in the UK and the USA. It is also true that children are expensive, and a woman experiencing an unplanned pregnancy may well take her personal economic circumstances into account when working out whether to continue with the pregnancy or to terminate it. But recognising these realities should not mean assuming that there is a direct relationship between abortion and economic recession, whereby women react to their financial difficulties by aborting a wanted pregnancy.
It may well be the case that the insecurity engendered by the recession encourages some women to decide, on balance, that they don’t want to continue with a pregnancy. On the other hand, some women may decide that the loss of a job, or the lack of clear career prospects, during a recession means that this is a good time to take some time out to have a baby. And in any circumstances, it is well known that the economic cost of a child is not what determines people’s decisions – which is why families with lower incomes often have more children than those with more money.
The birth rate, meanwhile, is influenced by a number of factors other than economic circumstances, including the normalisation of full-time female employment and the trend towards women delaying motherhood until they are approaching their thirties (3). Couples control their fertility not just through abortion, but through contraception and the amount of sex they have. There is a difference between generally planning not to have children in hard economic times, and aborting a wanted pregnancy solely because the sums don’t work. If the UK’s statistics eventually show a relationship between this latest recession and the subsequent birth rate, all of the different factors that impact both on the birth rate and the abortion rate will have to be taken into account.
So what does affect the abortion rate? Women have abortions for a number of reasons and the abortion rate reflects these personal reasons as well as broader social and policy developments (4). One important factor to take into account is that despite improvements in contraceptive methods and provision, many women fall pregnant unintentionally. Sometimes this is because they have not used contraception, and sometimes it is because their contraception has failed to work. Neither of these things should surprise us.
No method of contraception is perfect and women are not computers that can be programmed to resist every sexual advance unless they are properly ‘protected’. In the heat of the moment, missed pills get forgotten about and condoms stay in packets, and sometimes the result is unintended pregnancy. Unintended pregnancy has been a fact of women’s lives for centuries; the big difference today is that this does not have to result in bearing an unwanted child. Women take parenthood seriously and contemporary parenting culture presents the decision to have a child as a very big, important and life-changing step. So it is not ‘irresponsible’ to fall pregnant accidentally, and in such circumstances abortion can be a highly responsible decision, based on a woman’s careful consideration of her life, her relationships, and the conditions under which she might raise a child.
Another important and related development is the increasing acceptability of abortion, both at a public and policy level. Abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy has been legal in Britain for over 40 years now, meaning that several generations of women have grown up with the knowledge that abortion is a possible solution to unintended pregnancy. Abortion methods have greatly improved, becoming safer and more accessible. Abortion services are widely available and properly funded: today, 91 per cent of abortions are funded by the National Health Service (NHS).
These are all progressive developments. But those involved in discussions about abortion numbers and rates often seem unwilling to admit the simple fact that if a good service is there, people will make use of it. This does not mean that women have abortions unthinkingly – no woman ever wants to need to have an abortion and the experience is not a pleasant one. What it does mean is that women do not find themselves having to bear an unwanted child because the condom split, because they missed a pill, or because they just got carried away. In this respect, the abortion statistics reveal something very positive: the degree to which reproductive choice has become a reality for British women in the twenty-first century.
Jennie Bristow is editor of the BPAS journal Abortion Review. She is also author of the spiked column A Guide to Subversive Parenting. Her book, Standing Up To Supernanny, will be published in September 2009.
Jennie Bristow restated the moral case for women’s right to choose and offered 24 reasons to keep 24 weeks. Ann Furedi urged officials to stop playing politics with abortion and explained why the case for abortion cannot be massaged. Ellie Lee took a look at the history of the abortion debate and made the case for Early Medical Abortion (EMA). Or read more at spiked issue Abortion.
(1) Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2008. Department of Health, 21 May 2009
(2) Will the global recession lead to a ‘baby bust’?, Abortion Review, 14 May 2009
(4) For a fuller discussion of these points, see Are there too many abortions?, Ann Furedi, Abortion Review Special Edition 2: Abortion and Women’s Lives. Winter 2008/9
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