Abortions hit record high during pandemic

Abortions hit record high during pandemic
Allowing women to take pills at home to end pregnancies ‘revolutionary’

Women in England and Wales had a record number of abortions last year, figures show, as the pandemic reportedly restricted access to contraceptive services.

At the same time, a change in rules that allowed women to take pills at home to end their pregnancies “revolutionised abortion care”.

Some 210,860 abortions were recorded, the highest since records began, data from the Department of Health and Social Care show. The year before, 2019, there 209,519 abortions.

The vast majority last year – 209,917 – were to residents of England and Wales, and about half of the rest were to women in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The figure means an abortion rate of 18.2 per 1,000 resident women aged 15 to 44 – the highest rate recorded, exceeding the previous peak in 2019 of 18.

There was a large rise in the percentage of women having abortions by taking pills – as opposed to surgical methods – accounting for 88 per cent of abortions from April to December, compared with 77 per cent before the first lockdown.

At the end of March, as the pandemic took hold, health secretary Matt Hancock and the Welsh government approved the use of the two necessary pills for early medical abortion at home without the need to first attend a hospital or clinic.

This then became the most common method, accounting for 47 per cent of all abortions from April to December.

Jonathan Lord, UK medical chief for MSI Reproductive Choices – formerly Marie Stopes International – said: “These numbers come as no surprise. Access to contraceptive services, already challenging because of a sustained lack of investment, has become even more restricted during the pandemic, leaving many people facing unacceptable waits.

“This is even more stark for the most effective long-acting methods like the implant and coil.

“The anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact. The message we have heard loud and clear at our contraceptive clinics is that cut off from their support networks and anxious about how the crisis will affect them, the last thing many people want is to get pregnant.”

The abortion rate was highest for women aged 21, down from the age of 22 the year before.

Abortion rates for under-18s have fallen in a decade, from 16.5 to 6.9 per 1,000 between 2010 and 2020.

The decline since 2010 is particularly marked in girls under 16, where rates have dropped from 3.9 per 1,000 women to 1.2 per 1,000, figures show.

Numbers of women travelling to England and Wales for abortions dropped by 93 per cent between 2018 and last year, from 2,879 to 194.

This was put down to a mix of Ireland lifting its ban on abortion and Covid travel restrictions.

Dr Lord said the rise in people having abortions at home using pills was “testament to the positive changes brought about by the introduction of telemedicine”.

“Allowing people to opt for early medical abortion from the privacy and safety of their own homes has quite simply revolutionised abortion care and is so much kinder for patients.

“At a time when most NHS services were severely impacted by the pandemic, waiting times have reduced and people have been able to access abortion care earlier in their pregnancy.”

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