Abortion: Learning from the Numbers
I’m not a numbers guy. Numbers don’t usually excite me, and they don’t usually upset me. But there is one set of numbers which always moves me and often leaving me at my desk in tears. They are numbers which speak of lives lost when they have barely had a chance to begin and of traumatic experiences which will likely mar the lives of those left behind for many years.
This week, the UK Department of Health and Social Care published their annual report of abortion statistics for England and Wales, sharing the figures for the last calendar year. In some ways, numbers are the worst way to engage in a conversation like this. When we discuss abortion, we’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about lives, lives inside the womb and out, some lives just beginning, some which feel they’re falling apart, lives of babies, lives of women, and lives of men. But while the conversation is about more than numbers, the numbers are revealing and might help us to ask some of the right questions.
The Overall Numbers and the Question ‘Why?’
In 2019, there were 209,519 abortions carried out in England and Wales. A small number of these were for non-residents of the two countries (2,135), but the number for residents means that 18 out of every 1000 women aged 15-44 had an abortion last year.
The abortion rate in England and Wales began to drop in the late-2000s but has been rising over the last few years (16.7 in 2017, 17.4 in 2018, and now 18.0 in 2019). The 2019 rate is the highest seen in England and Wales since the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967, and the total number of abortions is also the highest for any single year since 1967.
This is the first point at which we should pause. We should pause and ask ‘Why?’ I don’t have immediate answers to this question. There are many plausible suggestions, and I’m not sure it is an easy question for which to give a conclusive answer. But it is a question we should ask.
Even those who see nothing wrong in the act of abortion should agree that this is an important question to ask. While there is great controversy over research into the mental health impacts of abortion, there is agreement that, in some cases at least, abortion has a negative impact on mental health. This means that even those who don’t see the need for concern for the fetuses should ask this question out of concern for the mothers.
Abortions for Mental Health
The vast majority of abortions in England and Wales are carried out before 24 weeks and justified by the conclusion that continuing the pregnancy would pose a greater risk to the woman’s physical or mental health than a termination. In 2019, 98% of abortions fell into this category. In almost all of these (99.9%), the risk was officially classified as ‘mental disorder, not otherwise specified’ (F99 in the ICD-10’s classifications).
The lack of specificity here is worrying–potentially the classification could be used to cover a very broad range of situations–but the general fact that this is almost always the reason for an abortion, is something we should pay attention to. The abortions taking place around us are almost never because of an imminent threat to the woman’s life and are rarely, although, as we’ll see, occasionally, because of concerns over the health of the baby.
If we want to help those with unplanned pregnancies to see a different way forward than abortion, we need to offer them the chance to explore their options. We should also be on the front-foot in looking for ways that we can offer help aimed at minimising any potential negative mental health impact of the pregnancy. This is the sort of great work that many pregnancy centres, such as those supported by the Pregnancy Centres Network, do across the country. They are a great way of putting into action a Christian response to these figures.
Abortions for Fetal Abnormality
A small but significant number (3,183) of the abortions in 2019 where performed because of fetal abnormality which posed a significant risk of the child being ‘seriously handicapped’. Of these, 66% took place at over 15 weeks, and 275 at or beyond 24 weeks.
This section of the Abortion Act is controversial because of the ambiguity over what constitutes being ‘seriously handicapped’. It is also rightly controversial because of the implications that it has for children and adults currently living with disabilities. If we say that the life of a living human being in the womb is not deserving of protection and preservation because of a disability or genetic condition, on what basis do we say that the life of a child or adult with the same illness or disability is worthy of preservation and protection? Acceptance of abortion in such cases leaves some members of society in a vulnerable position.
This is another point where we need to step up and act. A new Bill seeking to end abortions which are justified on the grounds that the child has a cleft palate, cleft lip, or club foot, all of which are treatable conditions, has recently been introduced to parliament. We should support this bill in prayer and encourage our own MPs to support it.
We must also offer support to parents who receive heart-breaking diagnoses about their child, weeping with them over the loss of hopes and plans they may have harboured for their child, and standing with them through practical support as they learn to care for their child for as long or short a time as they have the privilege of doing so.
Abortion and Deprivation
The 2019 statistics show that abortions are far more common among women living in deprived areas. The abortion rate among women in the most deprived areas is twice as high as that among the least deprived.
Again, we should ask ‘Why?’ Some research suggests that the most common reason why women chose an abortion is lack of the necessary finance to raise the child. A report published last year suggested that the introduction of a two-child limit for support through child tax credit and universal credit has forced some women to consider having an abortion. This economic factor could explain the disproportionately high abortion rate in the most deprived areas of England and Wales. If this is the case, it is questionable whether we can speak of these abortions being ‘a woman’s choice’. For many women abortion may not be their personal choice but, in practical terms, their only choice.
This is another set of situations where Christians should be on the forefront of a response, both in continuing to work for the eradication of poverty and the inequalities that often underpin it and in finding ways to offer practical and financial support to mothers who feel that abortion is their only option because of financial limitations.
Protest and Plausibility
The reality of abortion and unplanned pregnancies is complicated. We must avoid simplistic answers, but we must speak. It is because the numbers are not just numbers that they demand a response. But our response must be broad. We cannot respond in protest only. We must also respond by working for plausibility; the plausibility of a world where abortion might be available, but it’s never a necessity, and ultimately it becomes unthinkable.