Accessibility links

World Health Organization Targets Unsafe Abortions

The World Health Organization says one of the simplest ways to reduce the rate of maternal mortality is by preventing unsafe abortions. At least half of the 42 million women who experience unplanned pregnancies decide to terminate by either inducing abortion themselves or by an unskilled provider. The WHO calls the number of unsafe abortions a pandemic.

In some countries, just talking about abortion divides people into two camps: those who defend a woman's right to end a pregnancy, versus those who believe the rights of an unborn child supersede the mother's.

Elizabeth Maguire works in the field of reproductive rights.

She says both sides can agree on one thing: no one favors abortion as the best method of family planning. "There is no perfect contraceptive method, so there will always be abortion," she said. "And it's important that abortions be safe and so that women don't die."

The World Health Organization says a woman dies every eight minutes from an unsafe abortion. She is most likely poor and lives in a rural area of a developing country. She is often young and has little or no support for what she is about to do.

WHO says if her attempts to terminate pregnancy fail, she turns to someone without adequate medical qualifications. Often these abortions are unsanitary.

In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo, and for the first time, the conference report linked unsafe abortions directly to maternal death.

In the nearly two decades since the Cairo conference, at least 17 countries have liberalized their abortion laws.

India has one of the more comprehensive laws regarding a woman's right to abortion. Dr. Nozer Sheriar, a gynecologist, says the law was passed to save women's lives. "We had hospitals with wards overflowing with women with septic abortions (life-threatening abortions due to infection) and those wards have all been closed. So, having legal abortion helps," he explained.

But Dr. Sheriar says it is not enough to just give women the right to a safe abortion. It has to be readily available, without stigma, to all women, including those in remote areas.

"Very often the woman would not have the autonomy of making her decision, so she has to depend on husband and family and parents and in-laws, and everyone's involved in the decision for the abortion," Dr. Sheriar said.

Eastern Africa has the highest rate of maternal deaths because of complications from unsafe abortion. In 2005, Ethiopia became a model for other countries in the region by expanding abortion rights.

But even Ethiopia has ways to go before safe abortion is accessible to all women. According to one report, less than one third of the abortions in Ethiopia are performed in health care clinics and are considered legal and safe.