Abortion Rate in Israel Dropped Sharply During COVID Pandemic

Experts attribute the almost 7 percent drop in abortions in Israel to COVID-related pressures, but also form a part of a long-term trend

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A children's ward in Ichilov Hospital
A children's ward in Ichilov Hospital.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The number of abortions in Israel tailed off significantly last year amid a decline in pregnancies that health experts attributed to coronavirus anxieties and a paucity of opportunities to get pregnant during lockdowns.

Health Ministry released data on Tuesday showed that 17,548 women applied to terminate their pregnancy and 16,430 abortions were approved. The figures represent a 6.7 percent drop from 18,816 applications in 2019 and a 5.3 percent fall in the number of approvals from 17,355 in 2019. Last year’s decrease was in line with a steady decline in abortions over the last 30 years in Israel, albeit an unusually steep one.

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Dr. Arie Yeshaya, chairman of the Israel Society of Contraception and Sexual Health, said the fall was due to a drop in the number of pregnancies. In 2020, there were 177,000 births were recorded in Israel, down from 182,000 in 2019 and 184,000 in 2018. Similar declines were also seen in other countries, he said.

“There was a decline in sexual relations,” he explained. “Studies from around the world show that because of the pressure people felt during the [COVID] period, there was a drop in sexual desire, and in the quantity and quality of relations,” explained Yeshaya. “When it comes to young people, the lockdowns led to fewer get-togethers and parties, so there was a drop in the number of pregnancies. The entire period was characterized by less sexual relations, fewer pregnancies and fewer births.”

Dr. Noga Porat, chairwoman of Israel Society of Community OB-GYN Clinics, said she couldn’t explain exactly what caused the number of requests to terminate pregnancies to fall during lockdown periods. One possibility, she suggested, was that during the first lockdown people feared the effects of the little-known virus. “It could be that people were afraid to engage unprotected sex,” she said.

In addition, “among young people and teens, it could be that because there were so few get-togethers and a lack of places of entertainment, there were fewer unplanned pregnancies,” Porat said. Another possible explanation is the existence of “a survival component” crisis like the pandemic that cause people think twice before terminating a pregnancy. Medical services were also less accessible during lockdowns, she added.

While a woman seeking an abortion must apply to a pregnancy-termination committee, the committees approve about 99 percent of applications. 

Long-term trends

In 1990, the rate of abortions in Israel was 13.7 per 1,000 women of childbearing age (15 through 49). By 2020, however, the figure had dropped by 43 percent to 7.7 per 1,000 women. Over the same period, the number of abortion applications fell by 51 percent.

During 2020, the main reason women cited for seeking an abortion was an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the ministry report said. Medical reasons, such as danger to the mother’s life, fear of severe birth defects or the woman’s age were cited by applicants less frequently. All in all, the number of abortions conducted in 2020 was 7 percent less than in 2019.

Requests to terminate pregnancies dropped between 2010 and 2020 by 30 percent, with the number of abortions declining 28 percent. The decrease over this period was in all the categories allowed by law for seeking an abortion – a 36 percent drop in those requested according to the age of the mother, 34 percent for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, 8 percent for a fear of birth defects and a 29 percent drop risk to the mother’s health.

Young people in Tel Aviv during the second COVID lockdown in 2021 Credit: Ofer Vaknin

As to the long-term drop in the abortion rate, many experts have pointed to the availability of cheap methods of birth control. But Gila Bronner, director of the sex-therapy services at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, attributes the drop to changes in sexual habits.

“There’s been a decrease in intercourse and in the sexual attraction of young men toward their partners, a phenomenon that’s not discussed much, but it exists, and not just in Israel,” she told Haaretz in a 2018 interview.

“Among the healthy men 40 and younger who come to us, 20 percent complain of low sexual desire or a lack of desire at all. Compared to the past, there are many ways to get satisfaction that compete with the desire to have sex,” she observed.

“If in the past sex had one main competitor for our brains’ search for satisfaction – food – today there are a lot more stimulations that aren’t necessarily sexual. Moreover, the sexual desire that exists can easily be gratified through online porn, which is available and ultimately suppresses the desire to have sex.”

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