Number of women having an abortion reaches record high

·3-min read
The abortion rate has hit a record high in England and Wales. (Getty)
The abortion rate has hit a record high in England and Wales. (Getty)

The number of women who had an abortion in England and Wales hit a record high last year.

There were 214,256 abortions carried out for women living in England and Wales in 2021, the highest number since the Abortion Act (1967) was introduced, according to new government data.

The age-standardised abortion rate for residents was 18.6 per 1,000 women – the highest rate recorded – and up from 18.2 per 1,000 women in 2020.

The abortion rate in 2021 was highest for women aged 22 at 31.0 per 1,000 women.

The number of abortions for women under the age of 18 have declined significantly in recent years, with the rate falling from 15 per 100,000 to 6.4 per 1,000 between 2011 and 2021.

During the same period, levels have remained stable for women aged 35 or over (from 10.6 to 10.5 per 1,000 between 2020 and 2021).

Read more: Abortion in the UK: What you need to know

Total number of abortions, England and Wales, 2011 to 2021

Number of abortions, England and Wales, 2011 to 2021. (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities)
Number of abortions, England and Wales, 2011 to 2021. (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities)

Clare Murphy, chief executive of British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), said: “The pandemic, and the policies adopted by the government in response, have had a clear impact on women’s pregnancy choices.

“Faced with economic uncertainty and job insecurity, women and their partners have been making sometimes tough decisions around continuing or ending a pregnancy.

"While there is no right number of abortions, we know that there is much more the government can do to ensure that women are able to make the decisions that are right for them when faced with an unplanned pregnancy."

Over the last decade, the largest increases in abortion rates by age were among women aged 30-34, with an increase from 17.2 per 1,000 in 2011 to 22.1 per 1,000 in 2021.

In total, 82% of abortions last year were for women who gave single as their marital status, a proportion which has remained constant for the last decade.

Read more: What people can do to support abortion rights in the UK

Data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) revealed 52% of all abortions in 2021 involved women taking mifepristone and misoprostol pills in their homes.

In March 2020, at the start of the COVID pandemic, temporary measures were introduced in England and Wales to allow the use of both pills for early medical abortion at home, without needing to first attend a hospital or clinic.

These arrangements were made permanent in March this year.

Before the decision was confirmed, a Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists representative said: "There is a wealth of evidence to show that telemedicine for early medical abortion is safe, has enabled women to access treatment sooner and that the service is preferred by women."

Age-standardised abortion rate per 100,000 women

Age-standardised abortion rate, England and Wales, 2011 to 2021. (OHID)
Age-standardised abortion rate, England and Wales, 2011 to 2021. (OHID)

The new data for England and Wales showed that medical abortions – where women take pills as opposed to having surgery – accounted for 87% of all abortions in 2021, an increase of two percentage points from 2020 (85%).

Early medical abortions are defined as taking place within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

The statistics also showed more than 200 women and girls from Ireland travelled to Great Britain for abortions last year, an increase compared to 2020.

The figures show 206 women and girls, with addresses in the Republic of Ireland, sought abortion care, with a further 161 women and girls travelling from Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s abortion laws, which were legalised following a referendum in 2018, are under review.

A medical abortion is available for up to 12 weeks, but abortions thereafter are only allowed if there is a serious threat to the life or health of the mother or where two clinicians agree there is a fatal foetal abnormality.

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