Do we have the highest rate of teenage abortions in Europe?

5 October 2012

"England and Wales has the highest rate of abortions among women aged under 20 in Europe, with 22 abortions per 1,000 teenagers."

Daily Telegraph, 3 October 2012

Earlier this week, in an article about access to abortion in the UK, the Daily Telegraph reported that England and Wales has the highest teenage abortion rate in Europe.

As the article notes, this statistic is from a new report by the Guttmacher Institute - a US-based organisation whose self-described mission is "to ensure the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health for all people worldwide."

Its latest study compares termination rates from 40 countries with similar abortion laws. If we return to the original report, we can see how England and Wales place in Europe, as well as globally.

So, do we have the highest abortion rates in Europe?

The authors of the report note that the teenage abortion rate in England and Wales is 22. This means that for every 1000 female teenagers aged between 15 and 19 years old, there are 22 abortions. By way of comparison, our abortion rate for this age group is more than triple that of Germany (5.9) or Italy (6.9). 

The study uses the most recent data available from national statistical offices across the world. For England and Wales, we can see that the authors have analysed statistics from 2010. 

However, since the Guttmacher Institute compiled its research, the Department of Health has released new abortion data. We now know how many abortions were performed the following year, in 2011. 

What happened in 2011?

For residents of England and Wales, there were 189,931 abortions in 2011, a very slight increase on 2010 during which 189,574 abortions were recorded. 

In 2011, the abortion rate for teenagers aged 15-19 was 20 per 1000. When we include all teenagers (those aged under 15 as well as those aged 15 to 19) the abortion rate drops further - to 19.5. However, the Guttmacher Institute doesn't include younger teenagers in its count, but specifically calculates the abortion rate for teenagers aged 15-19.

If we now compare England and Wales rate from 2011 to the other nations surveyed in the report, Sweden tops the table as the country with the highest teenage abortion rate in Europe (20.9). But if we do this, we'd be guilty of a selective analaysis. We're not accounting for the fact that there's also more recent data available for Sweden. In 2011, we can see that the Scandinavian country's abortion rate also dropped, to 19.8. 

So without updated statistics for every other country, we can't judge whether the recent decrease in England and Wales' abortion rate would affect our overall position in the table.

Is the Daily Telegraph's claim inaccurate?

While the Daily Telegraph has correctly used the data in the Guttmacher Institute report, it is now a figure that's out-of-date. The teenage abortion rate in England and Wales is not currently 22 per 1000, as the Daily Telegraph states, but 19.5 (for all teenagers) and 20 (for those aged 15-19).

But does the new 2011 statistic alter how England and Wales place in the European rankings? Here we run up against a problem. In its examination of how abortion rates vary between countries, the Guttmacher Institute has collected the most recent data for each country. This means that some countries have provided statistics from 2008, others from 2009 or 2011.

We've already seen how a country's abortion rate can differ significantly from one year to the next, and Sweden's 2010 rate proves to be higher than the 2011 rate in England and Wales.

So while it is true that England and Wales found itself top of the teenage abortion rankings based on the single year's worth of data considered for the Guttmacher report, we would need to track this over several years to know if this was truly representative of our relative standing compared to our European neighbours.

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