Gordon C. Smith and colleagues used national databases to investigate the association between previous termination of pregnancy and preterm birth in Scotland between 1980 to 2008, and whether the type of procedure was an important factor.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Numerous studies have demonstrated that therapeutic termination of pregnancy (abortion) is associated with an increased risk of subsequent preterm birth. However, the literature is inconsistent, and methods of abortion have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. We hypothesized that the association between previous abortion and the risk of preterm first birth changed in Scotland between 1 January 1980 and 31 December 2008.
Methods and Findings
We studied linked Scottish national databases of births and perinatal deaths. We analysed the risk of preterm birth in relation to the number of previous abortions in 732,719 first births (≥24 wk), adjusting for maternal characteristics. The risk (adjusted odds ratio [95% CI]) of preterm birth was modelled using logistic regression, and associations were expressed for a one-unit increase in the number of previous abortions. Previous abortion was associated with an increased risk of preterm birth (1.12 [1.09–1.16]). When analysed by year of delivery, the association was strongest in 1980–1983 (1.32 [1.21–1.43]), progressively declined between 1984 and 1999, and was no longer apparent in 2000–2003 (0.98 [0.91–1.05]) or 2004–2008 (1.02 [0.95–1.09]). A statistical test for interaction between previous abortion and year was highly statistically significant (p<0.001). Analysis of data for abortions among nulliparous women in Scotland 1992–2008 demonstrated that the proportion that were surgical without use of cervical pre-treatment decreased from 31% to 0.4%, and that the proportion of medical abortions increased from 18% to 68%.
Previous abortion was a risk factor for spontaneous preterm birth in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s, but the association progressively weakened and disappeared altogether by 2000. These changes were paralleled by increasing use of medical abortion and cervical pre-treatment prior to surgical abortion. Although it is plausible that the two trends were related, we could not test this directly as the data on the method of prior abortions were not linked to individuals in the cohort. However, we speculate that modernising abortion methods may be an effective long-term strategy to reduce global rates of preterm birth.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Therapeutic termination of pregnancy is relatively common, with an estimated 40 million procedures performed worldwide every year. Until two decades ago, most terminations were performed as a surgical procedure, but now the majority of terminations are medically induced with a combination of drugs—selective progesterone receptor antagonists, such as mifepristone, and prostaglandins—that cause less damage to the woman's cervix. Although surgical terminations are still performed, nowadays prostaglandins are also used to help prevent damage to the cervix. Protecting the woman's cervix can help to reduce the risk of spontaneous preterm birth (delivery before 37 weeks gestation) in subsequent pregnancies. As many women who have abortions go on to have subsequent births, the widespread use of termination may be a significant factor in the high global rates of preterm delivery.
Why Was This Study Done?
A previous meta-analysis (a study that combines information from several studies) showed that the risk of preterm delivery was higher in women who had had a previous termination compared to women who had not. Based on this meta-analysis, UK guidelines on the care of women requesting a termination currently recommend that they be informed of the increased risk of subsequent preterm birth. However, it is biologically plausible that women undergoing medical termination or current practice for surgical termination (using prostaglandins to protect and prepare the cervix) may not have an increased risk of subsequent preterm delivery, because such approaches may cause less trauma to the cervix than traditional surgical termination. So in this study, the researchers used a large dataset from Scotland with three decades of information about previous terminations and subsequent preterm deliveries to test this possibility.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers linked two national databases—the Scottish Morbidity Record 02 (SMR02), which records the clinical and demographic characteristics and outcomes of all patients giving birth in Scottish maternity hospitals, and the Scottish Stillbirth and Infant Death Survey (SSBIDS), which classifies all perinatal deaths in Scotland. SMR02 data were available from 1980 onwards and also recorded each woman's self-reported total number of previous abortions, and SSBIDS data were available from 1985. Then the researchers used information from NHS National Services Scotland to examine secular trends in terminations over the past few decades, specifically, whether a recorded termination was surgical or medical, and also whether surgical abortion was preceded by cervical preparation.
Using these methods, the researchers identified that there were 757,060 live, singleton first births between 1980 and 2008 and that 56,816 women reported one previous termination, 5,790 women reported two previous terminations, and 822 women reported three previous terminations. In their analysis (adjusted for maternal characteristics) the researchers found that there was an independent association of spontaneous preterm birth, but not induced preterm birth, with previous termination. The researchers calculated that the chance (odds) of spontaneous preterm birth for one, two, and three or more previous abortions was 1.17, 1.51, and 1.64, after adjusting for maternal characteristics, including smoking. Over the time period, the researchers found that the proportion of surgical terminations without use of cervical pre-treatment decreased from 31% in 1992 to 0.4% in 2008, and over the same period the proportion of medical terminations increased from 18% to 68%. These trends are important, because in their analysis by year of delivery, the researchers found that the association between preterm delivery and previous termination was strongest in 1980–1983, progressively declined between 1984 and 1999, and was no longer present from 2000 to 2008.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings support the established association between previous termination and preterm delivery. But most importantly, the changes in this association over the past two decades—from strong in 1980–1983 to nonexistent in 2000–2008—a period in which the use of medical termination and pre-treatment of the cervix for surgical termination increased dramatically in Scotland, suggest that surgical termination without cervical pre-treatment is responsible for the increased risk of spontaneous preterm birth: the decrease in the proportion of this procedure over the study period may have led to the disappearance of the established association between previous termination and preterm delivery from 2000 onwards. However, these findings are limited in that the researchers could not directly test whether the two trends were related because they did not have information on the method of previous termination linked to subsequent birth outcome for individual women. However, based on the findings of this study, it is possible that using modern methods of termination of pregnancy (rather than purely surgical methods) could be a factor in reducing global rates of spontaneous preterm delivery in the future.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001481.
Wikipedia gives more information about termination of pregnancy (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
More information is available about the SMR02 dataset used in this study
The World Health Organization gives information on preterm birth