14 June 2012

Abortion and the thirty-something woman

Women in their early thirties are having both more babies and more abortions. How do we account for this shift? By Jennie Bristow.

Is the recession causing a rise in abortions? According to the Sunday Times, ‘the cash squeeze and career worries are being blamed for a 10 per cent increase in terminations’ among women in their early 30s. (1)

The most recent national abortion statistics show that the abortion rate for women aged 30 to 34 has increased ‘faster than for any other age bracket — from 14.2 women per thousand in 2001 to 17.2 in 2011’, reports the Sunday Times. The article goes on to note that ‘increased financial pressure, the wider availability of IVF treatment, allowing women to have children later in life, and a desire to climb the career ladder have all been cited as contributory factors’.

It is true that there has been a noticeable increase in the abortion rate for women in their early thirties – although looked at year on year, the jump is not so stark as the Sunday Times article implies. In 2006, the abortion rate for this age group was 15.1 per 1,000 women; this rose to 15.6 in 2008, and 16.5 in 2010. As a proportion of abortions across all age groups, the figure has remained steady over the past 10 years: abortions to women aged 30-34 account for between 14 and 16 per cent of all abortions. (2)

The increase in the abortion rate to 30-something women is therefore noticeable, but not remarkable. How might we account for it?

The Sunday Times news article emphasised the impact of the economic recession; and indeed, since the financial crisis began about four years ago, people have been speculating that the abortion rate would rise as a consequence of people’s inability to afford the cost of children. But this argument is complicated by other contradictory trends.

For example, the number of abortions – and the abortion rate as a whole – fell in 2008 and has remained at a lower rate since then. The fertility rate, meanwhile, has been increasing since 2001 –in all age groups, with the exception of women aged under 20. As the Office for National Statistics notes, ‘The last time the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) was this high was in 1973’. (3)

When the financial crisis began, as many people seemed to be speculating that women’s unemployment would lead to an increase in ‘recession babies’. Yet the increased fertility rate does not prove this argument to be correct any more than the increased abortion rate for women aged 30-34 proves the ‘recession leads to more abortions’ thesis to be correct.

The recent baby boom

In relation to the demographics, the Office for National Statistics explains that ‘there is no single explanation underlying the recent increases in fertility’ – these changes are likely to have resulted from a combination of factors, including:

• Women born in the 1960s and 1970s who delayed their childbearing to older ages and are now catching up in terms of completed family size;
• Changes in support for families (for example maternity and paternity leave and tax credits);
• Increases in the numbers of foreign born women with above average fertility.

These shifts do reveal some interesting changes in British society. For example, a quarter of births (25.1%) in 2010 were to mothers born outside the UK, compared with just under 12 per cent in 1999. (4) Part of the reason for this change has been the expansion of the European Union: in 2010, the country with the highest number of births to mothers from outside the UK was Poland.

Delayed childbearing is also an interesting feature of our times. The standardised average (mean) age of mothers rose to 29.5 years in 2010, compared with 29.4 years in 2009 and 28.5 years in 2000. Again, there are many possible explanations for this trend – from the increase in women embarking on professional careers, to the trend that has sometimes been termed ‘singleton society’, to denote the later age at which individuals now tend to form intimate partnerships and the increase in the number of individuals remaining single.

Another important reason for delayed fertility is also the effect upon a generation of growing up with access to free contraception and legal abortion: if women have the ability to enjoy a relatively long period of child-free sex, is it surprising that many of them take the opportunity to do so?

A further article in the Sunday Times hinted at the enduring impact of the cultural message promoted to teenagers, that having a baby will limit your life chances – the article argued that this message chimes with women’s fears, in their late twenties and early thirties, that having a baby at this stage in their career will prevent them from getting as far as fast as they can. (5) And because it has become increasingly normal for women to have babies in their late thirties or early forties, either naturally or with fertility treatment, postponing pregnancy can seem like a sensible thing to do.

Abortion as a back-up to family planning

In short, we have an interesting situation whereby women aged 30-34 are experiencing both the largest increases in the fertility rate (4.2 per cent) and the abortion rate of all age groups. What this represents is not that recessions are causing women to have either babies or abortions, but that women in their early thirties, as a group, are ambivalent about whether now is the right time to have a child. Some opt for beginning a family, having delayed through their thirties; and others feel that they still have too many other things to do in their lives before embarking on the baby trail.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, neatly summarised this point when she said to the Sunday Times:

‘Increasingly women expect to be able to control their fertility and so are less likely to “put up with” accidents when they happen with contraception. Many women are still very clear they wanted to have a baby. They want to experience pregnancy and have a family, but just the one child. Abortion has become more accepted and acceptable as something that a woman will choose to have when a pregnancy happens that hasn’t been specifically put on the agenda.’

It seems that the real shift is that women in their early thirties are making fertility choices in the way that was previously associated with women in their twenties. They are choosing to have babies or not, but it is a choice rather than an imperative brought about by their age or by social expectations.

Is this a problem? Medical critics often raise the concern that women are leaving childbearing ‘too late’, relying on fertility treatment that may not work. But women know, from their friends’ experience, that if you only want one or two children, it is not unrealistic to hope to fall pregnancy naturally in your late thirties – and the abortion rates to women in their late thirties and early forties show that it is quite possible to fall pregnant unintentionally too.

Cultural critics worry about the impact of women and men having an ever-expanding period of youth. But this processes of ‘infantilisation’ is not linked to fertility trends alone – it also relates to the increasing amount of time young people spend in education, living at home with their parents, and testing out partners and jobs before they settle down. Having children does not itself make people into grown-ups; and the reasons why people in their twenties might want to defer some of the aspects of adulthood are not necessarily the same as the reasons they have for not wanting children right this minute.

Anti-abortion critics talk about older women using abortion as a form of contraception, but if that were the case women in their thirties would not be having their first or second abortion, but their tenth or twelfth. Women are using abortion as a back-up when their contraception fails; but those who support women’s ability to plan their families know that such a back-up is necessary. Particularly when, as anecdotal evidence suggests, contraceptive services are so heavily targeted at teenagers that older women wanting alternatives to the condom or the pill are not given the information or choices about contraception that they might benefit from.

If there is a problem revealed by women having children, and abortions, later in life it is the extent to which the discussion about women’s complex and personal fertility decisions tends to be distorted by an obsession with statistics, and a desire for clear-cut demographic explanations. Contemporary culture expresses ambivalence about both abortion and parenthood – and it is hardly surprising that women entering their thirties express this ambivalence too.

(1) Financial crisis sparks abortion rise in over-30s. Sunday Times, 10 June 2012

(2) Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2011. Department of Health, May 2012

(3) Births and Deaths in England and Wales, 2010. ONS, 13 July 2011

(4) Births in England and Wales by parents’ country of birth, 2010. ONS, 25 August 2011

(5) Maybe later: Style investigates why another generation of women is putting off pregnancy. Sunday Times, 10 June 2012

Also read:

Will the global recession lead to a ‘baby bust’? Abortion Review, 14 May 2009