NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Unsafe abortion kills nearly 50,000 women a year, making it one of the major preventable causes of maternal mortality, yet many countries, including the United States and Spain, are trying to impose tighter legal restrictions on abortion, according to Ipas, a global NGO that works to advance women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
There are an estimated 22 million unsafe abortions around the world every year, mainly in developing countries, and over the past 20 years unsafe abortions have killed more than 1 million women and girls globally and injured 100 million, Ipas president and CEO Elizabeth Maguire said.
At present, “47,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions - the equivalent of 200 jumbo jet planes crashing with no survivors every year,” Maguire said. “It’s intolerable that these deaths and injuries continue to occur in the 21st century.”
Twenty years after the landmark programme of action on reproductive rights set out by the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the right to a safe and legal abortion remains one of the world’s most controversial reproductive health issues, according to Maguire and other experts who spoke at the United Nations’ recent 47th Commission on Population and Development (ICPD).
At the Cairo conference, 179 nations agreed to recognise that reproductive health and rights, as well as women's empowerment and gender equality, are cornerstones of population and development programmes.
But the Cairo mandate cannot be fulfilled “without agreement that restrictive abortion laws need to be reformed,” said Maguire, who moderated an event called “Uniting for Safe Legal Abortion: A Call to Action for 2014 and Beyond.”
“In Cairo, we got the consensus on abortion because of the bad health effects (of denial of access to abortion),” said Berit Austveg, a senior adviser to the Norwegian government and member of that country’s delegation to the ICPD.
There has been no increase in the abortion rate in Norway since it legalised the procedure in 1979, she said, yet “there’s no other medical intervention” that is surrounded by as much social controversy.
Even in France, which legalized abortion in 1975, the “anti-choice movement remains active, including acts of violence,” said Danielle Bousquet, president of France’s High Council on Equality between Women and Men.
The proliferation of anti-choice websites delivering “false testimonies” trying to dissuade women from abortion led the French government to launch an official website recently to supply women with accurate information, she said.
In a country with 16 million women of reproductive age, she said, there are about 220,000 abortions annually, some 10,000 of them on under-aged girls.
“France wishes that sexual and reproductive rights be made specific rights in the post-2015 agenda,” including the elimination of laws criminalizing abortion, she said, referring to the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.
Among the regions with the most restrictive abortion laws and the highest number of unsafe abortions is Latin America, which has 4.2 million abortions a year, most of them unsafe, according to Carmen Barroso, Western hemisphere regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).
Although Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City decriminalized some aspects of abortion in recent years, setbacks occurred in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and some Mexican states, she said.
Most people think abortion should be legal, but they tend to agree to curb it under the influence of strong religious opposition to the procedure, she said. She thinks this is because “For many people, that’s the only source that they have to consider themselves ethical and honourable.”
This position could easily change, she said, pointing out that only a few decades ago divorce was banned throughout Latin America, yet today few people question it.
Meanwhile, about half of those who die because of unsafe abortions are women under 25 years old, primarily poor, uneducated, rural and single, she said.
Most of them are in the developing world in countries with restrictive abortion laws, according to Ipas, which notes that the “82 countries with the most restrictive abortion laws also have the highest incidence of unsafe abortion.”
India is among the countries with the highest rate of maternal deaths among adolescents, said Ishita Chaudhry, executive director of India’s YP Foundation and a member of the High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development.
Part of this is due to the fact that 45 percent of Indian girls are married before the age of 18 and girls under that age require parental consent for an abortion, she said. As a result, a woman in India dies every two hours because an abortion has gone wrong.
“Where abortion laws are liberalised, the number of people having abortions is lower,” said Zane Dangor, special adviser to South Africa’s social development minister and a member of that country’s delegation to the ICPD.
In South Africa, where abortion is legal up to the 21st week of pregnancy, there has been a 91 percent reduction in abortion-related maternal mortality, he said. “What we’ve seen is that South African society has seen the value of choice,” he said.