Notes on levels of abortion in Austria

AWR Working Paper #19

by Wm. Robert Johnston
last updated 12 August 2018

Some have claimed that the apparently low abortion rates of Austria are more relevant to the recent Irish abortion debate than the higher rates of the other 15 Western European countries with legalized abortion, and more generally that Austria is a "success story" with regard to liberal concepts on abortion policy. Review of available information makes it abundantly clear that reported abortion rates for Austria are low due to underreporting.

Available data on known abortions in Austria are limited to official figures for 1989-2005, which shown a steady decline from 3,175 abortions in 1989 to 1,780 in 2005 (Council of Europe, 2004; GGP, 2016; Sardon, 2006). These figures correspond to abortion percentages (abortions as a percentage of total live births and abortions) of 3.9% and 2.2%, respectively, among the lowest levels in Europe.

Estimates of abortion in Austria provided in the Abortion Worldwide Report (Jacobson and Johnston, 2018; Johnston, 2018) are based on reported data, and these estimates peak at 12,900 per year in 1975-1976 and decline to 1,300 per year in 2015 (regarding peak levels see Johnston, 2017). Figures in this report, however, are limited to actual reported numbers and strictly constrained empirical estimates. Thus, for countries with significant underreporting these will be lower bounds only.

Austria legalized abortion in 1974 and abortions may be performed in hospitals or clinics. However, there is no requirement to report abortions (Tazi-Preve and Kytir, 1999; Sobotka, 2015). The only available figures—those described above for 1989-2005—only include abortions at public hospitals and public financed hospitals (Tazi-Preve and Kytir, 1999; Tazi-Preve and Rolof, 2002; IPPF, 2009). Data from Marie Stopes International suggests large numbers of unreported private abortions: their Austria clinic claims to have "averted" 791 "unintended pregnancies" in 2017 (MSI, 2018), for a single clinic amounting to nearly half of the last official report of nationwide hospital abortions.

Two published surveys suggest that abortion rates in Austria are consistent with other Western European countries. A 1995-1996 survey of 1,366 women found that 6.7% of respondents would "certainly" abort an "unintentional" pregnancy (Tazi-Preve and Rolof, 2002). This is 2.4 times higher than the reported abortion percentage, and of ten countries surveyed with broad access to abortion, Austria had the highest such ratio. A survey reported in 2016 of 3,019 women found that "the abortion rate in Austria is on European average (9.7 per 1000 women between 15 and 44 per year) and the abortion-birth-quotient is rather high in comparison with other European states." (Wallner, 2015). Although such limited surveys tend to be misleading with regard to estimating nation-wide abortion rates, in this case they tend to affirm that the officially reported data are incomplete.

The Guttmacher Institute and World Health Organization have concluded that abortions are significantly underreported in Austria. Sedgh et al. (2007) stated "Official estimates for Austria and Greece represent a negligible proportion of all abortions and are not included." Sedgh et al. (2012) assumed that Austria has an abortion rate of 10 per 1,000 women aged 15-44, comparable to what they estimate for most of Western and Southern Europe. If correct (and we note issues with assumptions in this study), this would imply 16,800 abortions in 2012 or an abortion percentage of 17.5%.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network has gone on record estimating Austria abortions by assuming a similar rate to United Kingdom abortions, yielding an estimate of 19,400 per year in 1980—this being the lowest estimate cited by Tazi-Preve and Kytir (2001). Tazi-Preve and Kytir (1999) estimate 19,000-25,000 per year based on analogy to other Western European countries. Fiala (2015) estimates 30,000-40,000 per year.

Annual abortions in Austria are certainly higher than reported in official figures, likely at least a factor of two higher. Some abortion advocates (when not trying to cite Austria as a success story) claim levels ten times higher or more, but there are methodological problems with those claims.


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Copyright © 2018 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 12 August 2018.
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