It is a little understood part of Australian life, but a new study has revealed a worrying number of women are falling pregnant accidentally, and hundreds of thousands could be having abortions.
No accurate data on unwanted pregnancies is kept by Australian authorities, and even the number of terminations remains a mystery, with record-keeping patchy and inaccurate.
But a survey of more than 2570 women published in the Medical Journal of Australia has offered a rare insight into how women are reacting to the news of a positive pregnancy.
It found that of the 1390 women who reported pregnancies over 10 years, more than a quarter (362) said they had an unintended pregnancy, including 94 who said their pregnancies were unwanted.
Of the women who had accidental pregnancies, 110 (or 30 per cent) said they had abortions.
Lead researcher Professor Angela Taft from La Trobe University said ideally in a high-income country like Australia the numbers of abortions would be lower.
“If the same proportions of the 2016 census applied, and if roughly 4.8 million women were pregnant … then 1.2 million of those would have an unintended pregnancy, and over 370,000 women (over the past 10 years) would have had terminations,” Professor Taft said.
“If eight per cent of those women with unwanted pregnancies birthed them, there would be over 25,500 women having babies that they didn’t necessarily want.
“We know that unwanted pregnancies and unwanted births are not a good way for children to get their best start in life. We want those early years to be as best they can.”
Professor Taft called for a national reproductive sexual and health strategy to implement more consistent sex education and research into how to improve the quality and use of contraception.
Sydney childcare worker Elizabeth (not her real name) is one of the thousands of women who have undergone an abortion in the last decade.
She said she was pressured in her mid-20s by a new boyfriend to get pregnant – a phenomenon that has been described as reproductive coercion.
“He just said … if you’re 30 you are going to be too old to be a mother. He didn’t take my dreams into consideration,” she said.
Elizabeth quickly fell pregnant, but the news made her feel scared rather than excited. She feared that if she kept the baby, she would have been stuck in an abusive relationship and not been able to travel or pursue her career goals.
The pair broke up and Elizabeth got a termination at eight weeks, supported by her parents. She is now in a happy relationship and hopes to have a baby in the next couple of years.
“You think about [the termination] sometimes, but I know it was the right thing to do,” she said.
One of the key issues to come out of the new study was that the majority of women who had unintended pregnancies (57 per cent) said they were not using contraception at the time.
Dr Philip Goldstone, the medical director of abortion and contraception provider Marie Stopes Australia, said all patients were asked about their contraception history.
He said many people who accidentally fell pregnant had been using contraception in the lead-up to getting pregnant, but forgot to take the pill, the condom broke or they had unprotected sex on only one occasion.
“I think some people do take risks and think ‘well, what are the chances’?” Dr Goldstone said.
He said a lot of couples would also use the withdrawal method to avoid pregnancy and the typical failure rate was close to 20 per cent.
The Victorian government does not keep data on unwanted pregnancies or abortions, and it’s a similar situation in NSW.
Any existing national data is muddied by the fact many abortions are recorded under dilation and curettage procedures, which would also include treatments for miscarriage.
Dr Goldstone said it would be useful to know the number of abortions that were occurring in Australia, and the ages and cultural background of those undergoing them.
“We know that … newly arrived migrant populations are quite heavily represented in women who are experiencing unplanned pregnancy because they are from countries where they don’t have a lot of information about contraception,” he said.