In 2010 there were 12,826 abortions carried out in Scotland.

It is a statistic full of sorrow. Nevertheless, closer inspection offers grounds for hope. After a 40-year rise in the number of pregnancies terminated since the implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act, a fall for two years in a row indicates the beginning of a downward turn. Both the overall number and, more importantly, the rates per 1000 women of childbearing age have fallen (from 13.3 in 2008 to 12.3 in 2010). The proportion carried out before nine weeks' gestation has been rising steadily and is now 65.2%, meaning the vast majority can be induced by drugs rather than surgery.

Most women, whether or not they would be prepared to have a termination, regard this as progress. Yet abortion has once again shot up the news agenda. The latest push has been given by Scotland's most senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who wants women seeking a termination to be shown an ultrasound image of the foetus to ensure they make "an informed decision" in the assumption that this will reduce the number of terminations.

This is a direct borrowing of a tactic by anti-abortion campaigners in the US where, in seven states, it is compulsory for women seeking a termination to have a foetal scan. This is an extension of the bullying by "pro-life" protesters who parade placards of well-developed foetuses outside clinics. It has been stepped up recently at clinics run by charities such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in England but is something Scotland has been spared because terminations are carried out in NHS hospitals. However sincerely held their belief in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception, to the majority of people such intimidation falls short of Christian compassion. That quality has been consistently and conscientiously demonstrated over the last 15 years in Glasgow by Sister Roseann Reddy, a nun who has carried out the initiative begun by the late Cardinal Thomas Winning to provide practical help to any woman facing a crisis pregnancy.

That is an acknowledgment that women who seek terminations find themselves in an impossible situation. The majority will have agonised long and hard before booking an appointment with their doctor and to force them to have a scan, unless medically necessary, will not change their minds but will take up valuable NHS resources.

Despite opinion polls showing that roughly two-thirds of the population support a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy, moves to make abortion more difficult have been gathering pace. The most high-profile was the campaign launched last year by Tory MP Nadine Dorries to require clinics, which she claimed had a financial interest in promoting abortion, to provide women with independent counselling. Since they are non-profitmaking, this could be dismissed as mud-slinging. Two recent reports on the way such clinics operate are alarming. An undercover reporter found a number of doctors willing to carry out an abortion because the foetus was the "wrong" gender and spot checks by the inspection body in England found a number of clinics, including some run by the NHS, were pre-signing consent forms for terminations. Although clinics suspect a witch hunt, this merits investigation.

But there is a danger that in focusing on the regulations we lose sight of the important issue. Anti-abortion campaigners prefer to describe themselves as pro-life. Those on the other side of the argument adopt the label of pro-choice. No-one wants to be pro-abortion because termination can only be justified when it is the least worst option. Sometimes the alternative is to bring a child into an abusive relationship, poverty, homelessness or ill-health. A closer look at the Scottish abortion statistics shows that in areas of high deprivation the rate is double that for the least deprived areas. Simply reducing the number of abortions will increase the number of children whose lives are blighted by deprivation. If we concentrate instead on improving the life chances of the children already born, the abortion rate will plummet.