Field of Science

Abortion in the news - passions run high, facts take a backseat

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
It's 40 years since abortion was legalised in the UK, and to mark the occasion religious groups have taken to the streets, calling for access to legal abortion to be restricted or (they hope) banned altogether. Their complaint? They believe that legalisation increases the number of abortions carried out. And on the face of it, they could be right. According to records kept by the Department of Health, in the 8 months of 1968 following the Act, 23,641 officially-sanctioned abortions were recorded. In 2006, there were 201,173.

Unfortunately, the data not only don't back them up - they actually show these people up as hypocrites. Just earlier this month, one of the most detailed, multinational studies ever undertaken was published in The Lancet. The study, a collaboration between scientists from the World Health Organization in Geneva and the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, used epidemiological techniques to reveal the rates of all abortion - legal and illegal - in countries around the world.

The study found that legalising abortion has no effect on the number of abortions. The only effect of illegalising abortion is to make it more dangerous for the mother. In fact, Western Europe, where abortion is mostly legal, has the lowest rates of abortion in the world! The authors say:

The abortion rate per 1000 women was lowest in western Europe (12), and was also quite low in northern and southern Europe (17–18) and Oceania (17). In these geographic areas, most abortions were legal and abortion incidence had been low for decades.

So why was the official rate in the UK so low in 1968? It's because in the first years after the law was passed, most abortions were still conducted illegally, and so don't show up in the official statistics.

So why are abortion rates so low in Western Europe? The Lancet study answers that one too. It backs up numerous other studies which show that the best way to reduce abortion rates is to provide easy access to contraception. If religious groups were really interested in reducing abortion, they would be out there handing out condoms!

In other words, these religious groups are hypocrites, and dangerous ones at that - they are campaigning to increase abortion rates and maternal death rates - and all because of their wretched, dark age dogma!

Ref: Sedgh G. Induced abortion: estimated rates and trends worldwide. The Lancet 2007; 370:1338-1345.


  1. Very interesting analysis.
    I just want to add a piece of information in relation to abortion law that I found fascinating and didn't know until recently. Canada has no law regarding abortion. Abortion is not a legal issue. in 1988 the then abortion law was challenged on the grounds that it was not compatible with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (part of the Canadian Constitution) At that time the Chief Justice, Brian Dickson wrote "Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction to carry a foetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman's body and this a violation of her security of the person."
    I don't think that the law in the UK will be abandoned over night but I do think that the debate regarding viability of foetus and should the time limit be reduced etc. can be put in a new perspective. I can't imagine any circumstances in which a woman would ever elect to have a late abortion in preference to an early one. I don't have the figures for Canadian abortions to hand but it would be interesting to make comparisons regarding late abortions. One more tit bit of information. The liberalisation of abortion law and its eventual annulling in Canada was very much the result of the courage and determination of one humanist hero, Dr Henry Morgentaler - google or wiki the name if you want to know more.

  2. Thanks for that Josh fascinat. The BMA gives an overview on abortion law around the world here: (but doesn't mention Canada). There aren't country-specific statistics on total abortions, but there are stats on legal abortions - I'll dig some out later.

  3. Another resource for you:


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