Are 98% of UK abortions "technically illegal"?

Michael Cook
10 Dec 2011
Reproduced with Permission

The keenness of British journalists to score exclusives and to run down the last details of stories are legendary - or at least they are now, after the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Which is what makes the ho-hum coverage of this week's report on mental health and abortion in the UK so puzzling. Commissioned by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and funded by the Department of Health, it is said to be "the world's largest, most comprehensive and systematic review into the mental health outcomes of induced abortion", although it does not appear to have been peer-reviewed. Its message is that

"…having an abortion does not increase the risk of mental health problems. The best current evidence suggests that it makes no difference to a woman's mental health whether she chooses to have an abortion or to continue with the pregnancy."

But if abortion is not a mental health risk, why are there so many of them? In England and Wales there are seven grounds for an induced abortion. According to readily available statistics for 2010, 98 percent of the 196,109 abortions in England and Wales were performed on "Ground C", fear of injury to the "physical or mental health of the pregnant woman". Of this 98 percent, according to the government, "The vast majority (99.96%) of ground C only terminations were reported as being performed because of a risk to the woman's mental health".

As Peter Saunders, CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship points out:

"This means that when doctors authorise abortions in order to protect a woman's mental health they are doing it so on the basis of a false belief not supported by the medical evidence. In other words the vast majority of abortions in this country are technically illegal."

However, the report itself fails to allude to this problem. It found that having an unwanted pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems. However, the rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy are the same, whether they have an abortion or give birth. The most reliable predictor of post-abortion mental health problems is having a history of mental health problems.