Abortion statistics 2013 – the underlying narratives

My column from the Catholic Universe – 21 July 2013

The abortion statistics for women living in England and Wales were released this week, with the picture looking decidedly mixed. A total of 185, 122 lives were lost to abortion in 2012, a drop of 2.5% from 2011, with a marked drop in the number of abortions performed upon the under-18 age group, in line with the reduced teenage pregnancy figures in this age cohort.

There is little to celebrate however, though more lives were spared than in previous years, the number of overall annual abortions equates to 185,000 women who felt that they lacked the ability, resources or desire to have a child and instead chose to terminate their baby’s life. That so many women felt that they had no option other than abortion indicates that something is seriously wrong in our society where so little value is placed both on the life of the unborn and motherhood itself. Moreover the raw data shows little improvement, around 16.4 per thousand women had an abortion in 2012, the same number of women as in 1997. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the number of abortions jumped and then rose steadily since the Labour government came to power in 1997, but has begun to decline since the Coalition took power in 2010. Austerity does not seem to be causing any spikes in the abortion rate which feels counter-intuitive; the UK fertility rate is now one of the highest in Europe, thanks to an increase in immigration and changes in the timing of childbearing, maternity units across the country are bursting at the seams.

Another upsetting narrative to emerge was the sharp increase in the number of pregnancies aborted due to fetal abnormality, which had risen by 17% last year. Our pro-life attitude only extends so far as being able to cheer on our paralympians in a fit of self-indulgent patriotic and patronising bonhomie. We’ll happily wave flags and give a pat on the head to those who manage to overcome the odds and perform almost superhuman feats of courage and endurance, but not actually get our hands dirty and be prepared to do the dirty work of looking after a child with physically demanding special needs. Perhaps I’m being unfair, I know of many such generous families and I also accept that for many the decision to abort a disabled child is a tortuous and heartbreaking process, but it’s a tragic irony that the year which did so much to raise the profile and potential and prospects of those with disabilities, also saw such a marked increase in disabled babies being denied the opportunity to live.

But what the abortion statistics do highlight, as does Ann Furedi, Head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), is that contraception is not the failsafe panacea promoted by the various industries and agencies with vested interests. By far the largest group of women who presented for an abortion last year, were those in the 20-24 age bracket, of whom it cannot be argued do not know the birds and the bees! Either they are engaging in irresponsible sexual behaviour, or their contraception is failing and perhaps both.

If Ann Furedi is admitting that ‘abortion is a fact of life…women from all ages and all walks of life experience unplanned pregnancy’ then this should cause us to question whether women really do have the much vaunted sexual freedom and whether or not abortion, the taking the life of a child, should be seen as an inevitable and acceptable consequence of a sexually permissive society? Does sexual libertinism come at too high a price? Lord Steele, one of the original architects and proponents of the 1967 Abortion Act dramatically intervened prior to the publication of these figures, saying that ‘it was never the purpose’ that women would use abortion as a form of contraception.’ For all Ann Furedi’s denial that abortion is used for this purpose, her insistence that there is ‘no right number of abortions’ belies her stance. The rise in repeat abortion would also undermine that claim – 37% of all abortions carried our last year were repeat procedures. More than 4,500 women had had at least four.

No wonder Ireland’s pro-life movement which has just seen a bill passed allowing for termination of pregnancy right up until birth for women deemed to be suicidal, are looking at the UK with such dismay and horror. The bitter irony is that this will reverse the abortion traffic back across the Irish Sea as a UK woman unable to procure a late stage abortion here need only to jump on a ferry or plane and claim she is suicidal in order to access the procedure over there.

Meanwhile our cousins over the pond in Texas have had considerable success in passing a bill which bans abortion from 20 weeks onwards as well as having the effect of closing many state clinics who are unwilling and/or unable to meet tight medical and sanitary regulations to ensure the protection of women.

Reading the heated debates on the matter, my attention was drawn to a polemic written by an ernest young man, enjoining his brothers to fight for the abortion rights of his sisters and setting out the reasons why. Amongst them were these:

“This bill will force men into unplanned fatherhood…Your sex life is at stake…Don’t be surprised if casual sex outside relationships becomes far more difficult to come by.”

A great own goal for the pro-choice movement demonstrating that abortion encourages men to shirk responsibility, leaving women with little other choice.