According to a recent study conducted jointly by WHO and the Guttmacher Institute, the overwhelming majority of abortions are safe in countries where the procedure is broadly legal, while most are unsafe in countries where it is highly restricted.
The consequences of unsafe abortion are devastating. Worldwide, at least 22,800 women die each year from complications of unsafe abortion, and many more are injured. And an estimated 40 per cent of women who experience such complications do not receive any medical care.
Often, these women cannot access care, either because of a lack of health services or because of stigma and fear of legal repercussions. The impact of unsafe abortion is far reaching, and can include permanent physical injury and infertility.
Not only do complications from unsafe procedures affect women’s physical health, but they also create a financial burden via treatment costs and lost wages. In developing countries, the cost of providing post-abortion care to treat complications often represents a significant drain on the overall health budget.
There is some good news: between 2000 and 2017, 33 countries modified their laws to make abortion legal under a wider set of circumstances. In addition, clandestine abortions are becoming safer in countries where laws are more restrictive as the use of abortion pills is slowly replacing invasive and extremely unsafe methods.
But even though women are finding ways to lessen the risks of unsafe abortion, they should not have to—because they should be able to access safe and legal abortion care. As long as women are being injured or are dying from unsafe procedures, there is a clear need to improve polices and services to prevent that from occurring.
Women and couples worldwide should have the right to safely achieve their desired family size and preferred timing of births. To make this a reality, high-quality, comprehensive contraceptive services need to be available and affordable, so that women and couples can prevent unintended pregnancy whenever possible.
But when contraceptives fail or when a woman experiences an unwanted pregnancy for any reason, access to safe services to terminate that pregnancy are essential.
Countries should expand the circumstances under which abortion is legal, and ensure safe abortion services are available and accessible. And public awareness campaigns can help to reduce stigma. These are smart moves to promote the health of women, their families and societies as a whole. Simply put, they are the right thing to do.