Abortion – what’s the story?

Lifestyle or self-determination?

What should be the focus of debates about abortion in Britain?

The Daily Telegraph reports ‘lifestyle abortions warning as serial termination numbers surge’.

And I’ve had a sporting ding dong with the catholic former MP Ann Widdecombe on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, during which she berated the ‘sheer number’ of abortions and women ‘putting their careers ahead’ of a ‘life in the womb.’

What is a lifestyle abortion? This is an example of bad language; of what the great Doreen Massey calls ‘vocabularies of neoliberal economy’ — the way the very language we speak has been skewed by the Right.

‘Lifestyle’ is associated with conspicuous consumption; it is associated with IKEA identity — we are what we consume, we are our kitchen cabinets and our build-it-yourself beds, we are endlessly re-making ourselves by endlessly discarding cushion covers. Lifestyle is anything from gardening to diet; from sex to sexual orientation. Lifestyle connotes pleasure.

However, this coupling is about ‘style’ rather than ‘life’.

So, abortion trends are being set up as consumption rather than self-determination; women’s control over their own bodies becomes caprice. That, in the misogynist mind is the cause for concern. The Daily Telegraph, it seems, is on a mission.

But what does the evidence tell us about who is having abortions, and when? And what, in any case, is a cause for concern?

Something significant is happening, however, but it isn’t about either ‘shopping’ or ‘surges’.

According to the 2013 statistics recently published by the Department of Health, abortion is declining, including among teenagers; the ratio of early abortions is rising, and the rate of medical (pill) rather than surgical abortions is rising, too:

If there has been a surge it is in early abortions: under 13 weeks — now 91 per cent.

Under 10 weeks: 58 per cent in 2003, 80 per cent in 2013.

The proportion of medical (a pill) — as against surgical — abortions has reached almost half, at 49%. A decade earlier it was only 17 per cent.

The implications for women themselves and for the National Health Service (the provider for the overwhelming majority of women) are palpable: abortion is less costly to the health and the funds of both women and the NHS.

There is another story — the numbers are falling: at 16 per 1000 women, this is the lowest since 1997.

Teenage abortions are also declining:

Under 16

  • 2013: 2.6 per 1000
  • 2003: 4 per 1000

Under 18

  • 2013: 11.7 per 1000
  • 2003: 13 per 1000

The number of women who have had more than one abortion has risen to 37 per cent, compared to 33 per cent.

And the number of women having abortions who already had a child rose from 47 per cent in 2003, 53 per cent in 2013.

The Daily Telegraph and Ann Widdecombe have a new target: not the ‘not bovvered’ teenagers, but mature women making choices.

They interpret these figures as indicative of women having serial abortions, ‘a casual attitude to multiple abortions’, says Widdecombe.

Women don’t have casual attitudes to abortion. We don’t know how to explain these figures.

Unsurprisingly the age at which most abortions happen is 21-22 years. What is these women’s experience? Why aren’t their male partners using condoms? Are they having an abortion in their 40s — having had one in their 20s? Do they think they are past getting pregnant? Do the men they have sex with use contraception, and if not why not?

There isn’t a surge of serial abortion but there is evidence that, among older women, having a child doesn’t necessarily mean they feel able or willing, or safe, to have another.

What used to be called ‘family planning’ and reproductive choice is now traduced as ‘surges’ in ‘casual attitudes’ among women who ought to know better. The moral right always needs to blame some woman or other.

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