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March 29, 2018 (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) – New statistics show that 21.7% of all conceptions in England and Wales led to legal abortion in 2016.

The Office of National Statistics' report Conceptions in England and Wales: 2016 found that the percentage of conceptions leading to a legal abortion in 2016 increased for women in all age groups since 2015, apart from women aged 40 and over. Women aged 30 to 34 years had the lowest percentage of conceptions leading to legal abortion (14.2%) in 2016, whereas women aged under 16 years had the highest percentage (61.5%).  Over the last two decades the percentage of conceptions leading to a legal abortion has generally increased for women aged under 30 years, decreased for women aged 35 and over and remained relatively stable for women aged 30 to 34 years.

Overall fall in conceptions

The statistics, which “are derived from combining numbers of maternities and abortions using information recorded at birth registration and abortion notification” (miscarriages and illegal abortions are not included) reveal several other interesting points.

The figure attracting headlines is the fact that the overall conception rate in England and Wales in 2016 was the lowest recorded since 2005, with the Daily Mail leading with “Pregnancy rate in England and Wales falls to 11-YEAR low with only women aged over 40 bucking the trend.”

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Fewer abortions to married couples

The report also compares the conception and abortion rates between those who are married and not. 58% of conceptions (and births) occurred outside marriage or civil partnership in 2016. This represents the culmination of a long-term rise (it was 55% in 2005 and 51% in 1998). Tellingly, 68% of conceptions outside marriage or civil partnership resulted in a maternity (live birth or stillbirth), compared with 92% of conceptions within marriage or civil partnership.

Fall in teen pregnancy and abortion rates

The ONS statistics also reveal that the rates of teenage pregnancy have continued to fall. The conception rate among women aged 15 to 17 was 18.9 per thousand – the lowest since comparable statistics were first produced in 1969. The fall in the under-18 conception rate in 2016, compared with 2015, consists of falls in both the conception rate leading to a maternity (decreased by 11%) and the conception rate leading to abortion (decreased by 9.3%). The under-18 conception rate has now declined by 60% since 1998 and by 55% since 2007.

But what's behind it?

The report suggests several factors that might be behind the reduction, including government sex education programmes, a shift in aspirations by young women towards education, and the perception of stigma associated with being a teenage mother. However, research by Prof David Paton of the University of Nottingham cautions against associating the fall in teenage pregnancy rates with sex education programmes in schools. Last year, he conducted an analysis which found that teen pregnancy and abortion rates actually fell more in areas where there had been funding cuts to teenage pregnancy programmes. 

Challenge to compulsory sex ed plans

Commenting on the ONS report, Prof Paton said: “The decline in teenage pregnancies seen in the 2016 conception figures comes 8 years after sexual health services started to be cut and 6 years after the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy was abolished. It is quite striking that the decline in teenage pregnancies has, if anything, accelerated the more that sexual health services have been cut. The latest figures present a challenge to the Government's plans to force all primary schools to introduce sex education and to limit the rights of parents to withdraw children from inappropriate sex ed. The current situation in which decisions over sex education are left to schools and in which parents are, in theory at least, fully involved has proved no barrier to reducing teen pregnancy in England.”

Published with permission from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.


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