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Half of women who had abortions were failed by contraception

As a new study shows, abortion services will always be a vital aspect of healthcare

A new report suggests that half of women who have had abortions in the UK fell pregnant despite making use of contraception. That’s over 14,000 women.

According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), 51.2 percent of women who accessed abortion services at their clinics in 2016 reported using a method of contraception, with a quarter of those using the most effective methods: hormonal, or longer acting contraception.

Oral contraceptive pills were shown to still be the most popular, but longer acting methods – like the IUD or coil – are gaining. No contraceptive is touted as 100 percent effective – condoms sit at 82 percent, with pills at 91 percent. Though failure rates are small, abortion services are always going to be essential.

The bpas report, ‘Why women present for abortions after 20 weeks’, highlights the huge failure rate of contraception, which led to people accessing abortion services at later gestation – 24 weeks is the legal limit in the UK. Over 80 per cent of terminations are performed in the first 10 weeks, with latest statistics showing the number performed at 20 weeks hasn’t changed much. 

This recently released study highlights that the majority of women accessing at a later stage weren’t aware that they were pregnant until later on. Some methods of contraception, like the mini pill or the patch, can mask pregnancy symptoms. The irregular periods many women suffer on particular kinds of birth control also mean people mistake sub-fertility bleeding for menstruation.

As bpas puts it: “much of the discussion about later abortions ignores the realities of women’s lives.”

This report is another damning perspective on how warped the systems surrounding reproductive healthcare are for women, and any person able to get pregnant. A few months ago, it was finally confirmed that oral contraceptions can affect women’s wellbeing. It’s what any woman who has suffered through the mood swings, the depression, the ‘can I separate myself from this dilapidating feeling of being shit’ emotional rollercoaster that is being on the pill can tell you really. But, it’s finally been proven by science.

“The stigma surrounding abortion is putting women in places they shouldn’t have to be, and compromises the opportunity to make a safe, fully informed decision about your own body”

What we learn from this new evidence is that the narrative that currently surrounds reproductive healthcare is failing women: you can be as careful and ‘responsible’ as society scolds you to be, but you can still get pregnant. Women are consistently shamed for accessing abortion, an important, vital faction of worldwide healthcare. The current system as it is does not give women the opportunity to have total, autonomous power over their fertility, particularly when it comes to agency over ending a pregnancy you don’t want.

Ann Furedi, bpas Chief Executive, detailed: “You encourage women to use contraception, you give them the sense that they can control their fertility – but if you do not provide safe abortion services when that contraception fails you are doing them a great disservice.”

Furedi added: “Our data shows women cannot control their fertility through contraception alone, even when they are using some of the most effective methods. Family planning is contraception and abortion. Abortion is birth control that women need when their regular method lets them down.”

The stigma surrounding abortion is putting women in places they shouldn’t have to be, and compromises the opportunity to make a safe, fully informed decision about your own body. The stereotype surrounding women accessing abortion is part of a one-sided narrative society likes to wheel out: they’re reckless, unthinking and irresponsible. These statistics say the total opposite.

Recent data from the Department of Health also defected from the mainstream narrative: figures showed that the majority of women terminating pregnancies last year were already mothers, at 55 percent, with 70 percent in a relationship or married. This goes against the aforementioned shaming stereotype.  

As the FPA, a sexual health charity, told the BBC, the most effective methods of contraception aren’t always made available. Personally, I’ve faced off with GPs who told me I was unsuitable for different methods I requested, to get the opposite opinion in a different clinic. One fifth of GPs were found to not offer the IUS, with a quarter not offering the implant. It’s down to lack of training, as well as the lack of funding. The best opportunities for managing your fertility are inconsistent.

Adequate abortion services that present women with the best opportunity to make an informed decision, as accessible as possible, are paramount. As it stands, the UK will soon bring in funds to support women from Northern Ireland in accessing NHS abortions – though they’ll still have to fund their own travel and accommodation. Last year, 724 women travelled from NI, and 3,265 travelled from the Republic of Ireland for terminations. It’s a journey that puts people under financial, emotional and social stress. Many, like disabled people, poor people, people with children or jobs, people in positions where they just can’t travel, aren’t able to make the decisions they want to about their own bodies.

But whatever you circumstance: if you don’t want to be pregnant, you shouldn’t fucking have to be. As Furedi noted on the Women’s Hour radio program, we must accept that abortion access is an important part of family planning. And we will always, always need the amazing services of bpas, Marie Stopes and other abortion providers that provide a vital service.