Study uncovers social variations in UK abortion rates

Abortions among young women tend to be lower in socially disadvantaged areas – even though these areas also have the highest rates of conception among the under 18s, according to a new report out today.

A study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found abortion proportions tended to be higher in areas where there is more extensive family planning provision, where there are higher percentages of women GPs and where there is easier access to independent abortion services.

But the average proportion across England, Scotland and Wales disguised wide variations in the percentage of terminations between areas. In the Derwentside district of County Durham the proportion of conceptions ending in abortion is below one in five compared with three out of four in the Eden district of Cumbria.

The report, by researchers from the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton, also found that young women’s choices of abortion or motherhood tended to be based on their personal circumstances at the time they become pregnant – rather than their moral views.

Teenagers who saw their lives as insecure were more likely to accept motherhood as a positive change in their lives. Those who saw their lives developing through education and employment were more likely to opt for an abortion.

The report combined UK statistical analysis with the findings from in-depth interviews with more than 100 young women.

The study found that between 1999 and 2001, 44% of conceptions among young women aged 15 to 17 were terminated. In England and Wales the highest and lowest proportions of teenage pregnancies ending in abortion were in Eden, Epsom & Ewell and Rochford (all over 70%) and Merthyr Tydfil, Torridge and Derwentside (all under 30%).

In Scotland, where statistics are prepared on a different basis, the proportion of conceptions to 13- to 19-year-olds leading to abortion varied between 49% in Grampian and 32% in Shetland.

The interviews with teenagers who had been pregnant suggested that the decision about whether to seek an abortion was generally reached before they visited a health professional.

While, most young women described their experiences of abortion services in positive terms, some had found doctors’ attitudes upsetting when they made their disapproval of teenage pregnancy and abortion apparent. Some clinicians showed a particular dislike of requests for abortion after the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, the report said.

Ellie Lee, a co-author of the report and former Research Fellow at the Centre for Sexual Health Research who now lectures at Kent University, said: “When an unplanned pregnancy occurs, it is clear that most young women perceive the outcome as first and foremost their decision. Yet the evidence shows that their views are shaped by factors that include social deprivation, the attitudes of family and friends and the accepted ‘norms’ of behaviour in the communities where they live.”


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