Pill scare is blamed for rise in abortions

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Nearly 8,000 abortions have now been linked to the 1995 scare over the contraceptive Pill, raising fresh criticism of ministers over their handling of the affair.

The Birth Control Trust said there was "no other convincing explanation" for the rise of 14.5 per cent in the number of abortions during April to June 1996 compared with the same period in the previous year.

A total of 42,683 terminations were carried out on residents of England and Wales, a rise of 5,241. The previous quarter, January to March 1996, immediately after the scare, showed an increase of 7 per cent in terminations - or 2,688 abortions. The figures reverse the previous downward trend in abortions.

The number of abortions of non-resident women went up from 2,290 in the June quarter of 1995 to 2,502 last year, representing a rise of 9.3 per cent.

The cause of the scare was a government warning in October 1995 that the newer "third generation" pills carried a small but increased risk of causing blood clots. Ministers and the Committee on the Safety of Medicines were strongly attacked by doctors over the warning and the way it was put out, with some doctors hearing about it from the media and unable to counsel or advise their patients.

Worried women inundated helplines, surgeries and family planning clinics to try to get more information with many simply stopping taking their contraception altogether.

The figures mean the rate of abortions is 3.3 per thousand resident women aged 14 to 49, almost the same level as for the months January to March when the highest rates are usually recorded. The number of abortions peaked in 1990 when there were 3.5 abortions per thousand resident women, but since then it has been decreasing.

The Birth Control Trust, which studied the announcement and concluded that the panic caused was unnecessary, said the scare was the only realistic explanation for the rise.

"Nobody can categorically prove that the additional abortions have been caused directly by the Pill panic," said Ann Furedi, the trust's director. "But it would be naive to imagine there is no association, and there is no other convincing explanation for the increase. Public confidence in the Pill has been needlessly shaken, and we are now seeing the consequences."

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a non-profit making organisation which advises women facing unplanned pregnancies, said it had been very busy during 1996. "Our own figures show this increase is distributed across England and Wales. It appears that every region of the country has seen an increase," said Carolyn Roberts, BPAS's marketing director. She added that figures recorded by the organisation so far this year clearly indicated that the increase was continuing.

The Family Planning Association called for more help and advice for women affected by contraception scares, saying calls to its own helpline more than doubled to 8,000 a month in the three months following the Pill scare.

The FPA's chief executive, Anne Weyman, said the "figures highlight the need for more support and information to enable women to use new methods effectively and with confident to avoid unplanned pregnancy".