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Abortion rate stable, changes in procedure highlight need for abortion law reform

• Abortion rate in England and Wales is stable at 16.0 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44
• In 2016, 55% of women having an abortion were already mothers – compared with 47% in 2006
• Over two-thirds (70%) were either in a relationship or married, up from around half (53%) ten years ago
• Significant increase in medical procedures – yet current abortion law restricts best clinical care in this area

Figures released today by the Department of Health show that the abortion rate is stable at 16.0 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age. This is the same rate as 2015 and 9.1% lower than the rate in 2006 (17.6 per 1,000 women). The majority of women who ended a pregnancy in 2016 were already mothers (55%) and either in a relationship or married (70%). Over the last decade, abortion rates have decreased among all age groups under 30, while increasing among all those aged 30 and over.

The statistics released today also demonstrate a significant shift away from surgical methods towards medical abortion, which involves taking two separate medications, mifepristone and misoprostol. The proportion of women ending a pregnancy using a medical procedure has more than doubled over the last decade from 30% in 2006 to 62% in 2016.

The current abortion law in England and Wales prevents women who have a medical abortion from receiving the best possible care. The 1967 Abortion Act was passed at a time when abortion required a surgical procedure, decades before safe, medical abortion with pills was a possibility, and as a result is widely out-of-step with current clinical standards.

Provisions in the Act are used to prevent women from taking medication for an early abortion at home in their own time, after it has been prescribed by a doctor, as women experiencing miscarriage are currently able to do. The ‘abortion pills’ can only be taken in clinics or hospital, which puts women at risk of miscarrying on their journey home. Home-use of abortion medication once prescribed by a medical professional is recommended by the World Health Organisation and is standard practice in most countries where abortion is legal, yet is currently prohibited by the 67 Abortion Act.

Stipulations in the Act can also require that women attend multiple appointments, which creates significant barriers to care for women with childcare commitments or difficulties taking time off work – either for financial reasons or concerns about job security.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said,

“These figures illustrate that women need access to good abortion services across their reproductive lifetimes, from the point at which they become sexually active right through to their menopause. We are a society that trusts women to make their own choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy or a pregnancy they cannot continue with, and we need an abortion framework which reflects that.

“In recent years we have seen an increase in the numbers of women safely ending early pregnancies with medication. Our current abortion laws, 50 years old this year, were drawn up at a time when no-one could have imagined tablets would be a safe and effective alternative to surgical intervention for women, and today those laws prevent us from providing early medical abortion in the most effective, woman-centred way. Unlike in many other countries, including the US, France and Sweden, women cannot use these pills at home once prescribed and may be forced to attend multiple appointments, which can be a real struggle for those with work and childcare commitments. Because the law forces them to take the medication in a clinic before travelling home, they are at risk of miscarrying en route.

“To mark the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, we would like to see abortion removed from the criminal law altogether and regulated in the same robust, patient-centred way as all other clinical procedures. We do not think it is ethical to demand women seek legal authorisation from 2 doctors before a procedure can be performed – a requirement unique to abortion, and we find it abhorrent that in the UK today a woman can in principle be sentenced to prison for life for ending her pregnancy without permission. In 2017, we are committed to moving forwards – not back – and ensuring women have the right to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies, with access to the high quality reproductive healthcare services they deserve.”

ENDS

For more information please contact the bpas press office on 0207 061 3377 or email press@bpas.org

Notes to Editors:

The full report, Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2016, can be found online here.

About bpas:

bpas is a charity which sees more than 70,000 women a year and provides reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice. More information can be found at bpas.org