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Half of all abortions carried out in unsafe conditions

September 28, 2017

On International Safe Abortion Day, a WHO study has revealed that millions of women resort to desperate measures to terminate their pregnancies. The percentage of unsafe abortions is highest in Latin America.

USA | Pro-life und Pro-Choice activists auf dem National March for Life Washington
Image: REUTERS/REUTERS/A. P. Bernstein

Almost half of all abortions across the world are carried out in dangerous conditions according to a study released Thursday by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute. It revealed that 25.1 million of the 55.7 million abortions carried out every year between 2010 and 2014 weren't safe for the women undergoing the procedure.

Of the pregnancy terminations considered unsafe, 17.1 million abortions involved women taking pills alone to end their pregnancies or women who were supported by a trained helper but used methods considered "less safe" than methods available with today's medical standards.

For another 8 million abortions, women took measures that the study categorized as "least safe," like swallowing toxic substances or inserting wires to bring about a miscarriage.

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International Safe Abortion Day

The authors of the study, which was published in medical journal "The Lancet," found that 97 percent of all unsafe abortions took place in developing countries. The legal situation in women's home countries also plays a big role.

"The proportion of unsafe abortions was significantly higher in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws than in those with less restrictive laws," it says in the study.

For International Safe Abortion Day on Thursday, protests for safe and legal abortions are expected around the world.

In some regions, access to safe abortions is restricted by law, in other regions they are legal but clinics are few and far between and there is a stigma attached to the procedure.

"It makes me sad, frustrated, angry – a mixture of all of these," Dr Bela Ganatra, lead author of the study and a scientist in the WHO Department of Reproductive Health and Research, said. "Why, if the solution seems so obviously simple, do we leave the science behind and get lost in the stigma and the politics? Why can't we just focus on the women?"

Infografik unsichere Abtreibungen ENG

The WHO has no data by country, but rather by continent. It shows that in Africa, more than three quarters of abortions are performed under unsafe conditions. Almost half occur under least safe conditions. In Latin America, even fewer abortions occur under safe, healthy conditions than in Africa. The difference: less than 17 percent are performed under the least safe conditions.

In Asia and Oceania, the situation is a little better, with more than 60 percent of abortions being safe. Even in Europe, 11.2 percent of pregnancy terminations are carried out under less safe conditions. That number is mostly due to eastern Europe, the region within the continent that saw the highest number of unsafe abortions from 2010 to 2014.

The region with the highest proportion of unsafe abortions is Middle Africa, where only 11.2 percent of abortions are performed under safe conditions.

'The science is simple'

The high number of women resorting to desperate, unsafe measures to terminate their pregnancies remains despite the fact that medicine has advanced enough to make safe, healthy abortion procedures quite uncomplicated.

"There are [means] available to provide safe abortions — the science is very basic and simple," Ganatra said. "It requires either a simple outpatient procedure or tablets, which is at primary care level and does not require a specialist physician either. There is no reason for this to not be available as part of basic health care."

To bring down the number of unsafe abortions, the WHO is not only advocating making safe abortions accessible to women who are eligible. The organization also emphasizes how important sex education for women and girls is, and points out that contraceptives should be easily available to everyone, not just people living in a certain area or members of a certain social class.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker