Jeremy Laurance: Advances in family planning should have halted the rise

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The number of abortions has doubled since the early 1970s and is now at a record high. Terminations among women of all ages rose by 2.5 per cent in 2007 to 198,499.

One in three women has an abortion at some point in her life. The abortion rate is rising fastest among the youngest girls. Each week in 2007, 84 children under 16 in England and Wales had abortions, of whom three were under 14.

Anti-abortion groups have attacked the record figures and demanded tighter restrictions. An attempt by MPs to cut the upper time limit for abortions from 24 weeks' gestation to 22 weeks failed in the House of Commons last May.

Experts remain baffled by the rising trend in the youngest girls, which has defied improvements in contraception, family planning services and sex education. Conceptions among under-16s have fallen in the past 10 years, but the proportion ending in abortion has risen from 49 to 60 per cent. The peak age for abortion is 20 to 24, with high rates also in the late teens and the late 20s. Over 30 the rate drops sharply.

Defenders of abortion say the high rate reflects the growing expectation that families should be planned. They say it is a mistake to see abortion as a problem when it is a solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy. Pro-life groups say the rising trend shows that the law needs tightening, and should not be further liberalised.

Ministers have said they want more abortions to be performed earlier, when they are safer. Latest figures show 65 per cent of women have their abortion at under 10 weeks, up from 51 per cent in 2002.

In October 2007, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee called for easier access to abortion. It said nurses and midwives with training should be able to carry out all stages of early medical and surgical abortions.