I don’t have the figures in front of me but I can guarantee to you that 15 years ago the incidence of abortions was far far fewer than it is today.  Today we have 200,000 abortions carried out per year…I think 15 years ago the figure may have been around 40,000 per year – Nadine Dorries MP on BBC Radio 4’s World at One Programme 29 August 2011

Sometimes I despair at how some politicians use statistics.

The quote above is a classic example.  Here are the true facts:

  • No. abortions in England and Wales in 1996 – 167,916
  • No. abortions in England and Wales fifteen years later in 2010 – 189,574

It’s easy to get a number wrong.  But by a factor of over 4 (the 1996 number)?  Frankly it’s unbelievable.

My figures come from the Department of Health’s publication Abortion Statistics, England and Wales: 2010, as up to date and accurate a set of statistics on the subject as I could find.

Perhaps Ms Dorries didn’t find them.  Perhaps she found them and mis-read them.  Perhaps she forgot the detail in the heat of the moment.  Perhaps she has an alternative and more accurate source of data the rest of the world hasn’t heard about.  Perhaps, heaven forefend,  she was guilty of mis-representation.  Perhaps she was talking through…don’t even go there.

Here’s a more factual although less exciting look at the statistics.

First, the simple number of abortions each year:

Now the rate of abortions – to allow for the difference in the number of women aged 15-44 over time:

It’s quite a different picture isn’t it?  Here’s my take on the figures:

  • The number was much higher fifteen years ago than Ms Dorries claims, therefore any increase since then is much less than she implies
  • The number now is not 200,000, it is just under 189,600 – or 5% less than the claimed figure
  • Both the number and rate of abortions have tended to go up and down together
  • There has actually been a decline in the number and rate of abortions since 2006
  • When you look at the rates they have not varied that dramatically – from 15.7 per thousand women in 1996 to 17.9 in 2007 and 17.1 in 2010
  • If 1.71% of women had an abortion in 2010 (17.1 in 1,000) then 98.29% didn’t.

Ms Dorries also said that we (England and Wales, Britain, the UK?) have “more abortions than anywhere else in Western Europe”.  The latest Eurostat publication on the subject shows she may be on slightly firmer ground here but her statement takes no account of the relative size of each country.  I have neither the time nor the will to delve into this generalisation. [But I changed my mind overnight – see my post Politicians and statistics Round 2]

It’s not so long ago the Labour government couldn’t utter the word “policy” without preceding it with the adjective “evidence-based” and it’s still a phrase many politicians reach for to justify what they want to do anyhow.  A key part of Ms Dorries’ evidence base for her belief that abortion should be more restricted would appear to be dodgy at best, completely fallacious at worst.

Readers should not infer from this post that I have any particular point of view on the subject of abortion .  My interest is in the use and abuse of statistics and some of you will know that one of the services HelpGov offers is helping establish the facts.