Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Revealed: abortion rates in the EU

Countries with restricted access to abortion, including the UK, do not have lower termination rates than those that are more liberal, a new study suggests.

Experts examined data for 27 EU countries and found no overall difference between termination rates for those allowing women abortions on request compared with those with certain conditions.

Terminations are illegal in Ireland and Malta, and Poland allows them for foetal abnormality, serious maternal health risks, and for pregnancies resulting from reported rape.

Elsewhere in the EU, abortion is allowed under certain conditions.

Luxembourg permits terminations on physical and mental health grounds while the UK, Cyprus, Finland also include "socio-economic indications", the study said.

In the UK, abortions are allowed on certain grounds, including that continuing with the pregnancy would be a greater risk to the woman's life, physical or mental health than ending the pregnancy, continuing would be more of a risk to the physical or mental health of any of the woman's existing children and there is a real risk the child would have a serious physical or mental disability.

In all other EU member states, terminations can be performed in early pregnancy on a woman's request.

Today's study, published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, found that countries that allowed termination on request had an abortion rate of 11 per 1,000 women, with a country variation from six to 25 per 1,000 women.

Those that restricted access had a very similar rate (12.3 per 1,000 women, with a country variation from nine to 14 per 1,000 women).

The lowest figures were reported in Germany and Greece (about six per 1,000 women of reproductive age), and in Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal (about 7.5 per 1,000).

Three countries - Bulgaria, Romania and Estonia - had a rate of 20 or more per 1,000.

By region, southern Europe had lower rates (8.9 per 1,000) than central and eastern Europe (10.8 per 1,000), and northern Europe (10.9 per 1,000).

Countries in northern Europe were Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK.

Southern Europe included Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

Central and eastern Europe included Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia.

The study also looked separately at women aged under 20 and over 35.

The proportion of abortions to women under 20 was higher in northern Europe (17%) than in central and eastern Europe (11%) and in southern Europe (10%).

The proportion of terminations to over-35s was lower in northern Europe.

The authors cautioned that data was not available on how many women move between countries seeking terminations.

Mika Gissler, from the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland, co- author of the study, said: "There are large variations across the EU and it is interesting to see that restricting women's access to termination doesn't mean the rates of termination are lower.

"Teenage termination of pregnancy rates were higher in the northern European countries. These high rates can be reduced by improved access to youth-friendly reproductive and sexual health services, better sexual education in schools, and free or heavily subsidised contraceptives."

BJOG scientific editor, Patrick Chien, said: "This study highlights the importance of sexual education and provision of access to reliable and affordable contraception. This is vital in order to achieve low rates of termination of pregnancy."

Rebecca Findlay, spokeswoman for the Family Planning Association (FPA), said: "There's a myth that if you make services less restrictive you'll be encouraging women to have abortions.

"This research shows it clearly isn't true. Women have abortions because they have an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy and not because the service is easier to access.

"In Britain we do operate under some restrictions.

"We know from our work in Northern Ireland where abortion is highly prohibited over a 1,000 women every year pay themselves and travel to have an abortion elsewhere.

"We should be making access to services and the experience of having an abortion in the UK a lot more straightforward instead."

A spokesman for the pro-life charity Life said: "The relationship between women's ability to access abortion and abortion rates is not a straightforward one.

"It is not simply a question of looking at the grounds on which women are permitted to have abortion by law.

"We must also consider whether requirements such as waiting periods, information provision and pre-abortion counselling have any effect on reducing abortion rates.

"There is little or no evidence to directly link any particular contraceptive provision initiative or particular forms of sex education to a reduction in abortion rates.

"Intra-EU variation in such rates is also a function of culture and history."

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