A response to Sky News: There is no ‘right’ number of abortions

Words by Laura Hurley, Programme Adviser, Safe Abortion Action Fund

Having worked in the field of reproductive rights for a number of years I’m familiar with the kinds of requests journalists send to organizations working on abortion. Colleagues swap horror stories of being invited to speak about their work on abortion rights, only to — surprise! — be confronted with an anti-abortion campaigner when already live on air, or hounded to provide an array of real, live women to come on television to talk about their abortions in great detail.

Even after weeks of concerted effort to provide reliable data and nuanced messaging, the final product will often still reproduce harmful myths and moral judgements about abortion. Most of the time I don’t think these journalists have the intention of shaming those who have abortions, but are just part of a wider society that continues to stigmatize the (very common) choice to end a pregnancy. Despite the fact that a third of women in the UK experience at least one abortion in their lifetime it’s still not something that most people feel comfortable speaking openly about, so strong is the stigma reflected back at us from TV, magazines, newspapers and social media.

Safe Abortion Action Fund

So it was with a heavy heart that I clicked the link to a Sky News ‘exclusive’ published yesterday, detailing statistics relating to what the news reporter terms ‘repeat abortions’. I work for the Safe Abortion Action Fund and was approached for an interview for this piece. I refused as it was clear even from this initial inquiry that there was going to be a stigmatizing slant: the producer spoke about ‘challenging circumstances’ for those having more than one abortion.

The article can’t really be considered ‘news’. It isn’t a response to any new official data published by the Department of Health but is in fact based on a Freedom of Information request, instigated by an undisclosed source.

Perhaps Sky News launched the request, or, more likely, the results were fed to them by one of the two anti-abortion organizations featured heavily in the article. Both Life and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) make a number of extremely biased and, at times, factually incorrect statements relating to the “extremely alarming” figures showing that a very small proportion of abortions which took place last year were provided to women who had had from four to seven previous abortions. From the pearl-clutching headline about ‘teenagers’ to the SPUC-parroting subheadline (which claims there has been a “massive betrayal of vulnerable women and girls”), it’s clear that the article is taking the stance that having more than one abortion is ‘a problem’.

The numbers risk identifying vulnerable women & girls

What these groups are reacting to with such alarm is that a very tiny proportion of those having an abortion in 2018 had had seven previous procedures. The figure given is 143 — which is 0.06% of the total number having abortions. What’s truly concerning is that I know an organization that spoke to Sky News in advance of this piece actually warned them that detailing such rare cases (among younger women) risks identifying girls who may well be in particularly vulnerable circumstances. This advice was clearly not taken on board. Who cares about journalistic ethics when you’ve got data about ‘teenage girls’ and ‘repeat abortion’ to splash across the internet for clicks!

Most galling is the faux concern for women’s health and safety displayed by the anti-abortion groups. They make wild and unsubstantiated claims that a woman seeking her seventh or eighth abortion is likely being ‘repeatedly coerced’ into doing so, and that women able to take abortion medication at home, thanks to an update to the law last year, “can be left with serious mental health problems”. In fact, having an abortion is not related to any increase in mental health problems. What numerous reliable studies have found is that in fact, unintended pregnancies can (understandably) cause increased anxiety and related psychological issues.

Removing stigma through comprehensive sex education

If groups like SPUC truly wanted to support people with unintended pregnancies one would presume they would be at the forefront of campaigning for improved education on relationships, sexuality and fertility for young people, and the provision of high quality accessible contraceptive services. In fact, SPUC is not just morally opposed to abortion (any number of abortions, in any circumstance by the way, even if a woman will die!), the organization also rails against contraception, claiming that IUDs, pills and implants are in fact ‘abortifacients’. It also runs a national campaign against the provision of sex education in schools. SPUC aren’t concerned that women are experiencing multiple unintended pregnancies due to unreliable contraceptive access, or are lacking control of their fertility in an abusive relationship — they are concerned that anyone, anywhere is having sex not intended to lead to procreation. They are the cause of the shame and stigma that women feel when they need to access reproductive health services, they are the source of misinformation which tells young people that if they have an abortion they will be infertile, potentially leading to future unintended pregnancies.

The reality is that it’s pretty common to have more than one abortion — last year over a third of abortions were subsequent procedures. We all know and love people who’ve had abortions (yes, with an S!) — and if they haven’t told us about it, maybe that’s because shaming articles like this one imply they are some kind of problem. Thankfully, an actual abortion provider, which deals with women every day, was able to pierce through the stigmatizing claims to remind us “there is no right number of abortions”.

The Safe Abortion Action Fund, hosted by IPPF, is the only global fund focused exclusively on the right to safe and legal abortion.

Around the world, International Planned Parenthood Federation provides healthcare & protects people's health and lives from sexual and reproductive coercion.

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