Teen Abortion Leap Brings Sex Education Demand

Half of pregnancies among girls under 18 are now ending in abortions although the number of pregnancies is falling, an analysis by The Times has shown.

Ministers are expected to respond to this milestone by forcing schools to improve sex education, with children as young as 5 taught about relationships and older pupils receiving specific advice about sex and contraception.

Government figures yesterday showed that the number of abortions continued to rise in England and Wales last year, with a leap in the number of very young girls having terminations.

The increase last year among girls under 16, the age of sexual consent, was 10 per cent, from 3,990 to 4,376. For girls aged under 14, the number of terminations increased from 135 to 163, a jump of 21 per cent.

The rate of abortions for girls under 18 was nearly 20 for every 1,000 last year, while analysis of recent trends suggests that conceptions among under 18s will have reached 40 pregnancies for every 1,000 women.

The rise in abortions suggests that very young girls are choosing increasingly to seek a termination rather than go through with a pregnancy. In previous generations such pregnancies often led to babies being given up for adoption.

Ministers set a ten-year target in 2000 to cut Britain’s teenage pregnancy rates by half, compared with a rate of 46.6 pregnancies per 1,000 women a decade ago.

A total of 20,289 girls under 18 had a termination last year, bringing fresh pressure on the Government to introduce mandatory sex and relationship education in schools. Ministers are likely to adopt proposals to extend sex education in all schools.

At present the only legal requirement is that they teach children the basic facts about human reproduction and anatomy, as part of the science curriculum. More than 30 MPs have signed a motion in the past fortnight suggesting that schools must do more.

Putting sex education on a statutory footing would still allow individual parents to take children out of sex education lessons, but would mean that every school would have to teach the subject to minimum standards at primary school age and above.

The Department for Children, Families and Schools announced this year that it would conduct a review of the issue and asked the UK Youth Parliament – which supports mandatory sex education – to play a leading role in co-chairing the process. Ministers have repeatedly hinted that their proposals will be adopted, although the department said yesterday that it had “no current plans” to make sex and relationship education statutory.

Official figures released yesterday show that 1,171 girls under 15 terminated a pregnancy in England and Wales in 2007 – a rise of 8 per cent on the 1,042 abortions in that age group the previous year.

A total of 198,500 abortions took place last year – up 2.5 per cent across women of all ages – but the greatest increases were among children of school age. The latter increase comes at a time when the teenage pregnancy rate in England is at its lowest for 20 years, although Britain’s teenage pregnancy rate remains the highest in Western Europe.

Conceptions among under 18s have been falling in recent years but teenage pregnancy rates have so far been cut by 13 per cent, well below the Government’s 50 per cent target.

Kaye Wellings, Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the trend among under18s was “bringing us in line with other European countries, where fewer pregnancies lead to live births than in the UK”.

Julie Bentley, chief executive of FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association), said: “Younger women are making different choices about their lives and choosing abortion over motherhood, but education and contraceptive services will stop them becoming pregnant in the first place.”

Gill Frances, chairwoman of the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group, added: “We know what works to reduce abortion among teenagers. We need high-quality sex-and-relationships education at school and at home, and effective contraception.”

MPs last month voted to keep the legal upper time limit for an abortion at 24 weeks of pregnancy. A total of 35 MPs have now signed a Commons motion calling for compulsory sex education, a campaign also backed by the FPA and sexual healthcare charities.

Chris Bryant, a Labour MP who produced a report highlighting poor sex education in some parts of the country, said the figures made clear the case for statutory sex education. “We have to face facts and make sure children know the facts.”

Antiabortion campaigners decried the figures. Nadine Dorries, a Tory MP who has campaigned for a reduction in the time limit, said: “Teenagers have never had so much sex education taught so badly, with almost no access to help where and when they need it most, resulting in a distressing and life-altering spell in an abortion clinic.”