The abortion rate in England and Wales reached an all-time high last year.

The abortion rate in England and Wales reached an all-time high last year.

Government statistics revealed last night that 181,600 women terminated pregnancies last year, up 3.2 per cent from 2002. The figure represents a rate of 17.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, the highest ever recorded.

In 2002, the total number of abortions had actually fallen by half a per cent to 175,900.

The vast majority of women seeking abortions last year were in the 20 to 24 age bracket. A total of 51,124 women in this group had terminations.

But there was also a high number of teenage abortions. A total of 37,043 took place among girls of 15 to 19; higher than the 36,018 recorded for the 25 to 29 age group.

A statement from the Department of Health said: "The figures are disappointing. However, no contraception method is 100 per cent effective and there will always be women seeking an abortion as they are legally entitled to do." The DoH bulletin said abortion rates for 2003 in all age groups were higher than those for 2002. The greatest rate of increase was for the 20 to 24 age group, at about 31 per 1,000 women.

Three quarters of abortions were carried out on single women, and the number carried out for medical reasons rose from 14 per cent to 17. More than half the total number of terminations, about 58 per cent, were carried out at under 10 weeks of pregnancy, and a further 29 per cent at 10 to 12 weeks.

Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, said: "It is good news that more abortions are taking place under 10 weeks and that there are higher rates of medical abortion. It is encouraging to see access to abortion speeded up and women being given a choice of methods.

"But again we see more figures exposing the desperate need for investment in NHS contraceptive services, including support for the professionals trying to run them.

"Access to good quality, widely available services is essential in preventing unplanned pregnancies. However, despite saving the NHS an estimated £2.5bn a year, contraception is still treated as the Cinderella service of public health. Providing individuals with access to the full range of contraceptive methods should not be regarded as a luxury service when it is each person's right to be able to control their own fertility and safeguard their sexual health."

The Department of Health said a key aim of both the Government's sexual health and HIV strategy and its teenage pregnancy strategy was to reduce unplanned pregnancies.

It added: "Provision of good-quality contraceptive services is key in achieving this. In 2003-04, we allocated £200,000 to the RCN for training, and in 2004-05 we will be allocating £500,000 to contraceptive services and £160,000 for national projects.

"We have also convened a group of key experts, including representatives from the Faculty of Family Planning and Reproductive Healthcare, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Family Planning Association to develop an action plan to support contraceptive services at local level."

Yesterday's figures showed 9,100 pregnancies were terminated among visitors, mostly from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.