Over the weekend, a misleading and inflammatory story appeared in the Sunday Times newspaper concerning the number of selective terminations performed in the UK. Entitled 'IVF mothers abort 'spare' babies', the article told us that 'women who find they are expecting twins or triplets after receiving treatment for infertility are choosing to have one or more babies aborted'. Further, the article told us that babies are destroyed 'usually to spare the mothers the additional burden of raising them'. The article gave the impression that hundreds of women are destroying their unwanted multiple babies on a whim to suit their lifestyles. But the reality of selective terminations is rather different.
Selective terminations are offered to women who are carrying twins, triplets or quads; most, though not all, of which are the result of fertility treatment. Those who decide to reduce the number of fetuses that they are carrying do not do so for their own convenience, but because of the health risks to their prospective children. Babies in multiple pregnancies are more likely to be born early, thereby increasing the chance of low birth weights and increasing the chance of disability. Although the selective termination itself is not without risk to the whole pregnancy, some couples feel that such a risk is worth taking in order to promote the health of the remaining fetuses.
What provoked the publication of this story? Are selective terminations on the rise or more frequently offered to women with multiple pregnancies? It seems that the story was written after new statistics on the number of abortions performed in England and Wales were released by the Office of National Statistics. The statistics show that the total number of abortions performed in 2001 was 187,402. Of these, 40 were selective terminations, 20 of which were carried out because of fetal abnormality. This very small number of selective terminations has hovered around 40 for the past decade and, if anything, is likely to fall from now on, as the number of multiple conceptions starts to come down.
Contrary to the impression given by the Sunday Times article, selective terminations are not common, nor are they on the increase. They are performed in rare circumstances in which, for an individual couple, reducing the number of fetuses in a pregnancy, as undesirable as it might seem, is the best way to protect the health and wellbeing of their future children.