Is the UK's abortion rate unusual compared to other countries?

8 October 2012

"I voted to reduce the time down to 12 weeks. I still have that view"

Jeremy Hunt in an interview with The Times, 6 October 2012

'If he is concerned at the high number of abortions, he will find that the UK figures [for abortion] are broadly in line with most European countries, and a good deal lower than in the US'

Lord David Steel, The Observer, 7 October 2012

Unlike in the United States where abortion is a divisive issue that stirs emotions on the campaign trail, here in the UK it's a subject that's less frequently debated by politicians.

But after a weekend when newly appointed Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed his personal support for reducing the UK's abortion limit, the debate over abortion restrictions has been revived.

Currently, women are able to request an abortion up until the 24th week of their pregnancy. However, Mr Hunt has reiterated that he thinks a 12 week limit would be more appropriate.

Various commentators have pointed out that of the 189,931 abortions recorded in 2011, 91% were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation. In other words, only a minority of women (9%) requested abortions after 12 weeks. 

But let's look more closely at Lord Steel's particular claim. In response to those who argue that abortion is too easily available, he's posited that the abortion rate in the UK is comparable to that of other European countries. So if Jeremy Hunt is concerned about our abortion rate, Lord Steel is suggesting that he needs to put the numbers into perspective. 

What is the rate of abortion in the UK?

A country's abortion rate is a calculation of the number of abortions per 1000 women in the female population of childbearing age (15-44 years). Department of Health statistics show us that the abortion rate in the UK has fluctuated only slightly over the past 10 years. In 2011 there were approximately 17 abortions per 1,000 women in England and Wales, and 12 abortions per 1,000 women in Scotland.

The Abortion Act 1967 does not apply to Northern Ireland and the law there is much more restrictive. A statement from the Northern Irish Health Minister recorded 43 terminations of pregnancy in total in 2010/11. There does not appear to be a rate calculated. However, the England and Wales Abortion Statistics do show that 1,007 abortions were carried out in England or Wales for women who live in Northern Ireland.

How do we compare to the rest of Europe?

The UK's abortion rate becomes a more meaningful number when we look at how our abortion rate compares to that of other European countries. From the latest UN abortion statistics, we can see that the abortion rate for England and Wales is only just above the European average, while the Scottish rate (not shown) is lower.

However, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes, the 'European' average can be misleading. According to the WHO, Western Europe is the region with the lowest abortion rate in the world (10.45 according to UN data). But Eastern Europe, where there are countries with far higher abortion rates, drags up the overall European average. This is the case even if we exclude Russia, which is not always included in European averages and is the country in this region with the highest abortion rate.

When we look at the same graph with the averages for Western Europe and Eastern Europe imposed, we can see that the abortion rate in England and Wales is now considerably higher than the Western European average, by 6.5 per 1,000. Even Scotland is above the Western European average by 1.5 per 1,000.

What about elsewhere in the world?

The same UN data set supports Lord Steel's claim that the abortion rate of the United States is notably higher than that of the UK. The US recorded an abortion rate of 20.8 abortions per 1,000 women, compared to England and Wales' 17.2 abortions per 1,000 and Scotland's 12.0.

It's worth pointing out that we should be careful not to draw definite conclusions from data sets that aren't entirely comparable. The UN is comparing data sets from different years - Greece, for example, has submitted abortion data from 1999, whilst Denmark has produced statistics from 2004. As we noted in our article on teenage abortion rates, abortion rates can vary considerably from year to year.

What does this mean for Lord Steel's claim?

Lord Steel is correct to say that the abortion rate of the UK is lower than that of the United States - or, at least, this has been the case in the past. However, when it comes to looking at how our abortion rate compares to other European countries, it's more informative to make a distinction between different European averages.

Although the UN data is not particularly recent, it shows us that England and Wales are closer to the average abortion rate for Eastern Europe, where abortion rates are much higher than in the west of the continent.

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