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Unsafe abortions increasing in developing countries - study

Worldwide one in five pregnancies in 2008 ended in abortion, but study finds that areas with liberal abortion laws had lower rates of abortion.

Image: mrhayata via Creative Commons

A NEW WHO STUDY has found that unsafe abortions are increasing in developing countries, putting women’s health there at risk.

The report found that the abortion rate around the world remained stable between 2003 and 2008, with respective rates of 29 and 28 abortions per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44.

However, it also found that the proportion of unsafe abortions has increased from 44 per cent in 1995 to 49 per cent in 2008.

Three out of four of all abortions took place in the developing world in 1995, but that figure rose to 86 per cent in 2008. As the number of abortions in the developed world fell by 0.6 million since 2003, it rose by 2.8 million in developing countries.

The report says that almost all abortions (97 per cent) in Africa are unsafe.

Meanwhile, Eastern Europe was marked in the report as the subregion with the highest level of abortions – 43 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in 2008. The lowest rate was recorded in Western Europe, which the report cites as 12 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 for the same year.

Abortion laws

The report notes that restrictive abortion laws did not result in a reduced level of abortions, and that lower abortion rates were recorded in regions where more women live under liberal abortion laws.

It also said that abortions were likely to be under-reported in places where they are highly stigmatised.

The researchers, who were funded by the British and Dutch governments and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, said that their estimates for unsafe abortion levels were devised through studying information in previously published studies as well as hospital records and surveys.

The report was carried in the medical journal the Lancet which notes that the new study is being published on the anniversary of the groundbreaking Roe V Wade supreme court ruling in the US which effectively legalised abortion across all 50 US states.

Maternal health

An opinion piece (free registration may be required for access) in the medical journal by Dr Beverly Winikoff and Wendy R Sheldon of the Gynuity Health Projects in New York says that the study’s estimates of unsafe abortions are likely to be conservative.

The WHO definition of ‘unsafe abortion’ needs to be updated, they write, as some of the unsafe abortions referred to in the study are likely carried out in environments which are safer than surgical procedures in those areas.

They also say that unsafe abortion is “one of the five major contributors to maternal mortality: causing one in every seven or eight maternal deaths in 2008″.

“Yet, when abortion is provided with proper medical techniques and care,” the authors add, “the risk of death is negligible and nearly 14 times lower than that of chidlbirth.”

They said that there is no regional biological difference between women in different parts of the world that should account for the higher maternal deaths in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and that costly technologies are not required to avoid such deaths:

If a lack exists, it is a lack of caring: a willingness to sacrifice lives to an ideological moral high ground, to social acceptability, or to the maintenance of a political comfort zone.

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