The number of abortions carried out in England and Wales has reached a record high of more than 200,000 in a year – with older women and mothers behind the rise.
Data published by the Department of Health and Social Care shows there were 200,608 abortions for women resident in England and Wales in 2018 – up 4 per cent on the 192,900 the previous year.
A further 4,687 abortions were carried out on non-residents - up slightly on the year before.
The data shows 1,053 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England or Wales in 2018 for an abortion – an increase of 192 women from the year before.
In Northern Ireland, there is a ban on abortions in almost all cases, even rape or incest. Abortion is only permitted when there is a risk to the life of the mother or a serious risk to her physical or mental health.
Imogen Stephens, of UK abortion provider Marie Stopes, noted the figures come at the same time as they hear stories from women that they have become pregnant while trying to access effective contraception.
She said: “Today, more than eight million women of reproductive age live in an area where the council has reduced funding for sexual and reproductive health services, leading to the closure of clinics and longer waiting lists. When women do manage to find a service, they may be denied the full range of contraception, including some of the most effective methods.”
The medical director noted that overall abortion rates are increasing among older women, while rates for younger women are falling. This demonstrates women need access to good contraception services across their reproductive lifetimes, from the point at which they become sexually active right through to their menopause, she added.
She added: “It is shameful that in 2018, more than 1,000 women from Northern Ireland are still being forced to travel to England to access abortion care, including those who have become pregnant as a result of rape or incest or whose foetus has no chance of survival outside of the womb.”
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said it was unsurprising the number of women who travelled from Northern Ireland to England or Wales for an abortion had risen.
She said: “The ongoing near-total ban on abortion doesn’t stop women needing or seeking abortions, it just forces them to board planes to access the healthcare. Women should be treated with respect and dignity and given the right to make choices about their own body at home.
“These statistics do not capture the many women unable to travel for an abortion – including those in an abusive relationship and those without confirmed immigration status – nor do they reflect those forced to access abortion pills online and risking prosecution in doing so.”
There has been a sharp rise over the last decade in the proportion of abortions to women who are already mothers.
In 2018, 56 per cent of abortions (111,633) were to women who had had one or more previous pregnancies that resulted in a live or stillbirth, up 5 per cent on the 106,550 the previous year.
Just under half of abortions in 2008 were to women who had already had one or more previous births.
Overall abortion rates have increased in the last decade for all women over the age of 25. The rates for women aged 30 to 34 increased from 15.6 per 1,000 women in 2008 to 19.9 in 2018.
Among those aged 35 and over, they have risen from 6.7 per 1,000 women in 2008 to 9.2 per 1,000 women in 2018.
The data also showed there were 1,267 abortions to girls aged under 16 (0.6 per cent of the total) in 2018. Of these, 363 were to girls aged under 15 (0.2 per cent of the total).
Overall, the abortion rate among under-18s has been falling for a decade.
Nine out of 10 abortions were carried out under 13 weeks’ gestation, with 80 per cent under 10 weeks – a figure that has remained constant over the last decade. Some 2 per cent of abortions were on grounds of serious disability.
Clare Murphy, of British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK’s largest abortion provider, said the reasons for the increase in abortions for older women in England and Wales are complex.
She said: “Accessible contraceptive services are often focused on the needs of younger women and women over the age of 25 can, in particular, find themselves excluded from schemes providing free, pharmacy access to emergency contraception.
“As so many women in the UK rely on pills and condoms as their main methods of contraception, it is vital that there is swift access to emergency options when those methods fail or a pill is missed.”
She said greater access to services was also needed for women who are already mothers – noting that unplanned pregnancy in the year after birth is not uncommon, particularly among women who are breastfeeding.
“However, it is also possible that over the longer term couples are making different decisions about family size and the number of children they can afford and feel able to properly care for,” she added. “The two-child benefit cap was designed to influence reproductive decision-making and we are certainly aware of cases where that has been a factor in a woman’s decision to end a third, unplanned pregnancy.”
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