Thursday 20 May 2010

Training Tales: What about illegal abortion in the UK?

Education For Choice trains thousands of professionals around the country each year. Training Tales will bring you stories from the amazing frontline professionals EFC trains.

A few weeks ago on training in Hull, a professional asked about the prevalence of illegal, or “backstreet”, abortions in the UK. Many professionals we work with are already aware that unsafe abortion is a major cause of global maternal mortality. Indeed, the World Health Organisation estimates that complications from unsafe abortion kill at least 70,000 women a year in parts of the world where safe abortion is illegal or inaccessible. Because of the fear of prosecution or stigmatisation, this number is difficult to estimate, but there is no doubting that in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and everywhere abortion is illegal, illegal abortion continues to threaten women’s lives. (And research indicates that making abortion illegal doesn’t necessarily make the practice less common, but it does force abortion underground.)

The short answer to the question of illegal abortion in the UK, however, is that we don’t know. It is unlikely to be a common practice in this country, given widespread availability of free services. That said, although abortion is widely available on the NHS and from providers such as Marie Stopes and bpas, some women are ineligible for free abortions on the NHS. Others may be unaware of the services available to them. According to a BBC report, there are indications that illegal abortion in the UK is an issue.

As far as I know, no one has yet undertaken a comprehensive study of the issue of illegal abortion the UK (although please correct me if I’m wrong!). Whatever the figures, I think this interesting question should remind us of the importance of talking to all young people about pregnancy choices, including abortion, openly, honestly, and early. The BBC report also indicates that the women accessing illegal abortions in the UK may come from marginalised communities, a reminder that everyone deserves the same information. Professionals sometimes feel anxiety about addressing abortion with some young people because of their backgrounds, but young people from cultural or religious communities that disapprove of abortion need information about choices just as much, if not more, than other young people. Education about pregnancy choices keeps young people safe by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to prevent pregnancy and to make safe, informed choices when facing unintended pregnancy.

In a related note, EFC director Lisa Hallgarten recently issued a statement regarding abortion medication available on the internet. Check it out here.

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