National Partnership for Women & Families

In the News

Op-ed commemorates International Safe Abortion Day by spotlighting study showing disparities in abortion rates

In a commentary for Rewire, Ann M. Starrs, president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, commemorates International Safe Abortion Day by spotlighting a new study that found while "most developed regions have seen a marked decline in the rate of abortion" over the last 25 years, the rate of abortion in certain developing nations "has barely changed over the same time period."

According to Starrs, on International Safe Abortion Day -- celebrated every Sept. 28 -- "women's health advocates from around the world unite in support of ensuring universal access to safe abortion care and the repeal of laws that criminalize abortion."

Citing the study, released by Guttmacher and the World Health Organization, Starrs writes that the rate of abortion declined from 46 to 27 per every 1,000 reproductive-age woman in most developed regions of the world between 1990 and 2014, "suggest[ing] that women and couples in developed countries have become more successful at avoiding unintended pregnancies." However, the study also found that the abortion rate "[i]n developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean ... has barely changed over the same time period, dropping only slightly from 39 to 37 per every 1,000 women."

According to Starrs, "Preventing unwanted and mistimed pregnancies through investments in high-quality family planning services is essential to reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions," but "not every abortion can be prevented just by improving family planning services." A woman might also have experienced sexual assault, a contraception failure or a change in circumstances -- such as job loss or the discovery of fetal anomalies -- that leads her to seek abortion care.

As a result, according to Starrs, "Access to safe abortion care is essential so that women don't have to resort to clandestine and unsafe procedures, which can put them at risk of physical harm." She explains that "[t]he negative health consequences of unsafe abortion are alarming," noting that about "6.9 million women in developing countries were treated for complications from unsafe abortion in 2012, and as many as 40 percent of women who need never received it." Overall, "[i]n 2014, at least 22,000 women, mostly in Africa, died as a result of complications from unsafe abortion," Starrs writes.

Citing research showing comparable rates of abortion in countries that legalize abortion care and in countries that criminalize or severely restrict the procedure, Starrs states, "Laws that prohibit abortion altogether, or allow the procedure only under very limited circumstances, don't stop women from having abortions." Countries should at a minimum "take appropriate steps to ensure universal access to safe abortion care to the extent allowed by the law," Starrs continues, but some regions "are backsliding" despite research showing "the positive relationship between access to safe abortion and public health."

For instance, lawmakers in the United States have been working to restrict abortion access "at the federal and -- in particular -- at the state level." Starrs cites research showing that "[b]etween 2010 and July 2016 alone, state lawmakers across the country adopted 334 restrictions intended to make abortion care less available to women who need it." Moreover, according to Starrs, research shows that "[t]hese restrictions often fall hardest on women who are poor, young, or otherwise vulnerable."

Starrs highlights the need for readily accessible post-abortion care in regions where the procedure is restricted to help "ensure that women who experience a complication receive the care they need." Citing a successful post-abortion care program in Rwanda, she writes, "That means health facilities must have the trained personnel, equipment, and medication needed to manage complications."

Starrs concludes, "Wednesday serves as an important reminder that it is the basic right of every woman to be able to decide on the number and spacing of her children without having to put her health or life at risk -- no matter where she lives" (Starrs, Rewire, 9/27).