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FactCheck: Are 1 in 5 babies in England aborted?

We look at the facts behind a Save the 8th campaign poster.

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THE CAMPAIGNING has begun by both sides in relation to the upcoming referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment. Part of this campaigning involves postering. The Save the 8th campaign, which is opposed to repealing the Eighth Amendment, has a poster which says:

In England 1 in 5 babies are aborted.

30441343_1338938976250286_6004970011930656768_n Source: Save the 8th via Facebook

Let’s take a look at this claim. The Save the 8th claim comes from 2015 UK statistics – in order to be up-to-date, we have taken the 2016 UK statistics, which vary very little from 2015.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the UK Department of Health statistics, in 2016 in England and Wales there were:

  • Live births: 696,271
  • Stillbirths: 3,112
  • Abortions: 190,406

This means there were, according to these statistics, 889,789 recorded pregnancies in total (if we add together live births + stillbirths + abortions), of which 190,406 or 21.39% ended in abortion.

However, the above statistics do not include the rate of miscarriage.

The HSE says that an estimated 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. But it also says:

…the figure could be significantly higher because many miscarriages are thought to occur before a woman realises that she is pregnant.

The majority of miscarriages happen during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Conception rates

Let’s look at conception figures. The ONS says that in 2016, in England and Wales there were an estimated 862,785 conceptions to women of all ages, compared with 876,934 in 2015, which was a decrease of 1.6%.

Again, these statistics, like the pregnancy statistics above, don’t include miscarriage.

The ONS explains:

Conception statistics do not include conceptions resulting in miscarriages or illegal abortions.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says that it “uses conception data as a proxy for pregnancies”, although miscarriages are not included.

It says that the conception statistics are estimated for women usually resident in England and Wales and are “based on birth registrations and abortion records”.

If we look at abortion as a percentage of these conceptions in England and Wales, the ONS statistics show that the percentage of conceptions leading to legal abortion in 2016 across all ages groups is 21.7%.

Regarding the ages of women who had these abortions, it says:

Women aged 30 to 34 years had the lowest percentage of conceptions leading to legal abortion (14.2%) in 2016, whereas women aged under 16 years had the highest percentage (61.5%).

The ONS explains that it cannot include “conceptions resulting in miscarriages or illegal abortions” – unlike births and legal abortions, there are no official records to give a definitive figure on these.

However, it says that, similar to the HSE: “NHS Choices estimate that one in six confirmed pregnancies will end in miscarriage”.

What are the ways that abortion numbers are measured?

As US data website Five Thirty Eight explains, there are three ways of measuring abortion:

  • The number: The total number of abortions in a population
  • The rate: The number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 – 44
  • The ratio: The proportion of all pregnancies that end in abortion rather than a birth.

Regarding the rate of abortions, the number of abortions per 1,000 live births is usually calculated as the number of abortions multiplied by 1,000, divided by the total mid-year population of women aged between 15 and 44 (as Measure Evaluation outlines). On this, Five Thirty Eight says:

Because many reproductive-age women aren’t getting pregnant, the rate alone can’t tell you how likely a pregnant woman is to have an abortion.

So the abortion ratio can give another view of things here. This is what the Save the 8th poster looks at. To get this ratio, you divide the abortion rate by the pregnancy rate, though as Five Thirty Eight says:

This can be a challenge, because to calculate the pregnancy rate, researchers need the raw number of pregnancies, which no [US] government agency collects directly. In fact, a certain percentage of pregnancies are virtually impossible to count, because they end in miscarriage

As we’ve seen above, the pregnancy and conception rates in England and Wales in 2016 don’t include the number of miscarriages.

Explains Five Thirty Eight, in order to estimate the total number of pregnancies, researchers “add the number of abortions and the number of live births, using birth-certificate data”.

“They then use the estimated number of pregnancies per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 — the pregnancy rate — and the abortion rate to calculate the abortion ratio.”

If you have the abortion ratio and pregnancy rate, you can then see:

  • How many women are getting pregnant
  • When they do get pregnant, whether they have an abortion.

What is the abortion rate for England and Wales in 2016?

The UK’s Department of Health says that the age-standardised abortion rate that year was 16.0 per 1,000 resident women aged 15-44.

This is the same rate as 2015 and 9.1% lower than 10 years previously, in 2006 (17.6).

The data also shows us that:

  • The abortion rate was highest for women at the age of 22 (at 27.9 per 1,000). By comparison, the highest rate in 2015 was for women at the age of 21 (at 28.7 per 1,000)
  • The under-16 abortion rate was 1.7 per 1,000 women and the under-18 rate was 8.9 per 1,000 women
  • Both of these are lower than in 2015 (2.0 and 9.9 per 1,000 women respectively) and in the year 2006 (3.9 and 18.2 per 1,000 women respectively).

Conclusion 

It must be noted that the Save the 8th poster says that ’1 in 5 babies’ is aborted.

In a previous FactCheck, a Save the 8th campaign spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that “everyone describes their preborn child as a baby”. The Save the 8th campaign uses the term ‘baby’ to describe a pregnancy from conception. (See also the statement by Save the 8th representative Dr Eimear Thornton at a recent Save the 8th launch that the point of gestation makes for a “living human being”.)

This definition as utilised by Save the 8th of the term ‘baby’ from the point of gestation or conception should therefore include such pregnancies that unfortunately end in miscarriage at any point.

The 1 in 5 figure does not include these miscarriages – it is calculated only on the legal abortion and births records. As the NHS and HSE points out, there is an estimate of the number of miscarriages, but because it is only an estimate, they can’t technically add it to the official figures. Therefore, FactCheck would not be in a position to proffer a definitive figure – but neither can any other entity.

(These entities would include the Save the 8th billboards but also Dr Peter Boylan’s assertion in an interview with Hot Press magazine that “the true figure is about one in ten”. This is also unproven.)

Verdict: Unproven, which means that “the evidence available is insufficient to support or refute the claim”.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

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