Yesterday in what turns out to be Round 1 of this subject I wrote

[MP Nadine] Dorries … said that we… have “more abortions than anywhere else in Western Europe”…   I have neither the time nor the will to delve into this generalisation.

Somehow, overnight I summonsed the will to look at the data and again the truth turns out to be more complex than the politician’s easy generalisation:

Italics – most recent year available if not 2008

Source: Eurostat databases

As with all statistical data the devil is in the detail.  Ms Dorries talked about “Western Europe” and in the absence of an official definition I have used my own.  For one reason or another there is no data available for Ireland, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria or Portugal.

When commenting on her other claims on this subject I used figures for England and Wales as these are the headline numbers the Department of Health publish.  Scotland and Northern Ireland have devolved responsibility for health.  Strictly speaking I should also have excluded Welsh data for the same reason, which would have brought Ms Dorries’ claimed “200,000” abortions per year down to just under 181,000 in 2010.  This seems reasonable because the changes to the abortion law she seeks would only apply to England.  On the other hand, when making international comparisons, the only data available is at UK level, and only for 2008.

Having said all that, we can return to Ms Dorries’ claims and conclude

  • Yes, we did have the highest number of abortions in Western Europe, but only in 2008 (since when our figures have fallen slightly – data is not yet available for other countries) and only slightly more than France
  • However, on the much more meaningful measure of the chance of a woman having an abortion (the rate) France and the UK are virtually the same and have the second highest rate in Western Europe
  • The highest rate of abortions in Western Europe, considerably higher than either the UK or France, is in Sweden
  • There is arguably a cluster of four countries –the UK, France, Norway and Denmark – where the rates of abortion are not that different.

So the scary headline the highest number of abortions, with all its negative connotations, turns out to tell only part of a complex story.


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.

In my last post I mentioned an older rant about an unsolicited device that arrived through the mail purporting to help save the planet by reducing the consumption of water in my shower.

It had occurred to me that most of my stories about the private sector included a wee homily about their relevance for the public sector but the shower device story hadn’t.  I said I’d rectify that, so here goes.

Once upon a time, and it was a while ago, the NHS in part of this United Kingdom of ours decided that too many children had bad teeth (“dental caries” as the experts say).

Pondering the causes of this they decided part of the problem was that parents did not get their toddlers into the habit of brushing their teeth.  So along with a lot of other activity (workshops, postcards et al) they decided to distribute free packs of starter toothbrushes and toothpaste that would be given to parents when they had contact with the health service.

This is what happened in one area.

The manager responsible for health improvement was sitting innocently at her desk when there was a phone call from the office caretaker.

“I’m down at the loading bay,” he said “and a pallet’s just arrived for you.”

Curious at a “pallet” arriving for her that she had not been told about, she set off for the office basement to find said pallet and the caretaker saying “It can’t stay here.  There isn’t room.”

Together, they opened one corner of the shrink wrap around the pallet to find that it was full of cartons containing small toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.  Further examination revealed a letter that said more information was on the way.

It was.  A letter arrived describing the campaign I outline above.

Caretakers are usually right but the manager craved his indulgence to keep the pallet in the basement until she could work out what to do with it.

The only answer she could think of was to divide the contents into bite-sized (sorry) chunks and distribute them throughout the area to the staff who were going to have to ensure they got to the parents of young children – public health co-ordinators, health visitors, clinics, dentists and so on.

This really only shifted the problem on as most of her colleagues also lacked storage space.  But at least they’d only have to deal with smaller parts of the overall consignment until they’d been trained and familiarised with the programme.

To cut a long story short, the brushes and tubes of toothpaste were eventually passed into the not always grateful hands of parents.

Feedback about the success of the programme started to trickle back.  The conclusions were what any parent of a small child will recognise.

  • The toothbrushes were all one type and size – not all the children could cope with them (if in doubt about this check in your local pharmacy for the packs they sell with three types of “brush” for different stages of infant development)
  • The toothpaste was all one flavour – lots of the children didn’t like it (what you might call the mint vs. strawberry dilemma).

Lots of the brushes and tubes were never used.

This is exactly like my shower attachment.

  • Someone assumed they knew what I wanted – I wasn’t asked
  • It arrived out of the blue
  • It didn’t work for me (wrong fitting).

So as I’ve said many times before there is no essential difference between work in the public and private sectors of the economy.  It’s good to know they both have the same lessons to learn.