The 10 biggest myths about abortion

From our rate being the 'highest' in the world to there being 'popular' support for restrictions, it’s time to debunk the biggest misconceptions

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It’s nearly 50 years since women in most of the UK have had access to safe, legal abortion services. One in three women will have an abortion during their lifetime, and all of us will know someone who has had one.

Yet despite this, abortion remains a stigmatised area of women’s healthcare – creating a climate in which myths and half-truths prevail. If women are going to have a chance of retaining their right to make their own health decisions, they must be challenged. So here are 10 of the biggest misconceptions, followed by their reality.

1. The UK abortion rate is higher than anywhere in the world - and it’s rising all the time

It isn’t. It’s stable and in keeping with rates in comparable developed countries such as France and Denmark, and slightly lower than Sweden’s. These are all countries which expect women to be able to pursue individual goals and ambitions – and plan the timing and size of their families.


2. Lots of people want restrictions on abortion, it’s just very controversial

The majority of the British public are pro-choice, and are in fact more liberal on this issue than the law currently allows. When asked about abortion in the last British Social Attitudes Survey, just under two thirds of us agreed with the statement that “a woman should decide on her own if she does not wish to have the child”.


3. Contraception is free on the NHS – if women just used it, there would be no need for abortion

Most women who have abortions were using a form of contraception when they conceived. No method is 100 per cent effective, and for some women side-effects such as pain and bleeding from the more reliable long-acting methods are intolerable. We can improve women’s access to contraception – and push for the development of new and better methods – but women will always need abortion as back-up if they are to be able to plan their lives and families.


4. All women in the UK can easily access an abortion

They can’t if they live in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply and abortion is available only in the most limited of circumstances. But even where the Act does apply, women can be obstructed by doctors who conscientiously object to abortion, and the fact that (unlike any other procedure) women need the approval of two doctors before they can proceed, inevitably causes delays.


5. It’s really only young, childless women who have abortions

It really isn’t. An unplanned pregnancy can happen to any woman at any stage of her reproductive lifetime. Roughly the same number of women over 35 as women under 20 will undergo an abortion each year, and more than 2/3 of women who have abortions in England and Wales are married or with a partner. More than half of women having abortions are already mothers.



6. Women can now find out they are pregnant before they miss a period, so there’s no need for later abortions

The vast majority of abortions – 93 per cent – are carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and just 1 per cent are performed after 20 weeks. Women who have later abortions are often in exceptional and extremely challenging circumstances – they may be younger women who have hidden their pregnancies, or older, perimenopausal women who did not suspect they were pregnant. There will also be cases where a wanted pregnancy ends after a dramatic change in a woman’s circumstances: a family breakdown, or the illness of a child.


7. Sex selective abortion is happening all over the UK

In 2014, the Department of Health carried out an in-depth analysis of births across the UK and found no evidence of gender imbalance in any ethnic community. But where any woman is under pressure to bear a boy over a girl, the answer lies in improving women’s lot in the UK – not restricting their reproductive choices.


8. Repeat abortion is a real problem. It shows women are using abortion as contraception

Around a third of women having abortions have had a previous procedure - similar to other countries where women have had access to legal abortions across their lifetimes. Women are fertile for up to 4 decades so it is unsurprising that over those years some will face an unplanned pregnancy, or a pregnancy they cannot carry to term on more than one occasion.


9. Abortion for foetal anomaly is discrimination against disabled people

Abortion for foetal anomaly is no reflection on the value of disabled people in society. There is no conflict between finding ways to reduce incidence of disability (eg through taking folic acid in early pregnancy), respecting a woman’s personal decision not to bear a child with a disability, and as a society ending discrimination against disabled people.


10. Abortion is no longer a criminal offence

Abortion remains a criminal offence at any gestation in the UK unless a women’s request is authorised by two doctors under the grounds laid our in the 1967 Abortion Act. This means that a woman who buys abortion medication online, or a doctor who performs an abortion for a woman who wants one without the authorisation of a colleague, can be prosecuted and jailed for 14 years. Women in the UK have no right, at any stage, to end a pregnancy. And this needs to change.


We need to tackle the myths about abortion, and press for women from Belfast to Brighton to be trusted to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies. Taking abortion out of the criminal law and regulating it like other women’s healthcare procedures is not the be-all and end-all solution – but keeping it there as part of our legal system leaves women and their doctors vulnerable to prosecution attempts by those ideologically opposed to what they do.