Israel’s Abortion Rate Falls as Birth Control, Traditional Mores Rise

Experts also say fewer young men are seeking to have sex and are surfing the internet instead, including online pornography

A doctor listens to a question from a patient seeking an abortion, Fort Worth, Texas, June 3, 2016.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

The abortion rate in Israel is dropping consistently for reasons including greater accessibility to birth control and a society becoming more traditional, the Health Ministry said in a new report.

Between 1990 and 2016, the annual ratio of abortions to live births dropped 34 percent – from 150 for every 1,000 live births to 99. The number of abortions for every 1,000 women of fertility age dropped from 13.6 to nine, while the number of requests to pregnancy-termination committees at hospitals tumbled 42 percent, the report said.

Over the past three decades there has been a sharp rise in the number of babies born in Israel, from 103,000 in 1990 to 136,000 in 2000 and 188,000 in 2016. The number of abortions, however, has remained steady at around 20,000 a year, sending the ratio sharply lower.

Israel’s ratio of abortions to live births is also around half that in Europe. “Unlike in other countries or the situation a few decades ago, contraceptives in Israel today are cheap and available,” said Prof. Yariv Yogev, director of Lis Maternity and Women’s Hospital at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital.

“No less important is that there’s a lot more openness about the subject; today a 16-year-old girl has no problem asking her mother to come with her to the doctor for contraceptives. It’s no longer rare; I encounter this all the time in the clinic, and the army also gives out pills,” said Yogev, a fertility expert and a member of the hospital’s pregnancy-termination committee.

“This availability of contraception and openness is also seen in places where in the past they were less felt, such as in the country’s outskirts. In general, we see more awareness of the possibility of unwanted pregnancy and venereal diseases, and more of a sense of responsibility – not only by the girl or woman. It’s not that there’s less sex, but awareness and accessibility to birth control have changed dramatically in recent decades.”

Dr. Aryeh Yeshaya, a senior gynecologist at Petah Tikva’s Beilinson Hospital, said drops in the abortion rate were being observed all over the world. He too points to the greater availability of contraception, but adds that the growth of the Arab and religious communities, which do not readily accept abortion, is also a factor.

He also noted that “there is evidence of a drop in intercourse among young people, with more of them getting satisfaction from their relationships, sexual and in general, through the internet.”

Gila Bronner, director of the sex therapy service at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, also attributes the drop in abortion to changes in sexual habits.

“There is 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 said.

“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 added.

“If in the past sex had one main competitor for our brains’ search for satisfaction – food – today there 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.”

Every woman seeking an abortion must receive the approval of a pregnancy-termination committee. The committees approve 98 percent of  applications, based on one of four conditions. In 2016, of the 17,990 abortions performed in Israel, about half were approved for “pregnancy resulting from prohibited relations under criminal law, incest or extramarital affairs.”

In such a case, the woman can make a statement only and need not offer proof – so this reason is also used by women who do not meet any of the conditions for abortion and lie to obtain the committee’s approval.

About 20 percent of abortions are performed because “continuing the pregnancy may endanger the woman’s life or cause her physical or mental harm.” Another 20 percent are approved for fear of a physical or mental defect in the fetus, and the rest because the woman is below the minimum age of marriage, 17, or is older than 40.

About 60 percent of Israeli women who terminated pregnancies in 2016 did so by the end of the seventh week. A quarter of abortions took place between the eighth and 12th weeks, and 14 percent from the 13th week on. Three hundred women aborted after the 23rd week.

The report also points to a sharp increase in the number of drug-induced abortions, compared to those performed by dilation and curettage. Since 2000, the number of drug-induced abortions has tripled; in 2016, 5,577 such abortions were performed in Israel.