While more corners of the world are legalizing abortions and old stigmas are beginning to turn, a shocking number of women and girls continue to be at risk of unsafe abortions.
A recent study published in The Lancet set out to find the prevalence of safe and unsafe abortions across the globe. Around 55.7 million people each year had an abortion between 2010 and 2014. It’s estimated that around 25.1 million (45 percent) of these were unsafe and potentially dangerous.
The new research classifies abortions as ”safe”, “less safe”, and “least safe”, based on the guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Over 30 percent of the total number of abortions were considered “less safe”. This means they were performed by trained practitioners but using outdated or unsafe methods, such as sharp curettage or using misoprostol tablets without follow-up support.
Approximately 14 percent of abortions – 8 million in total – were deemed “least safe”, meaning they were performed by an untrained person using dangerous methods. These include methods such as using sharp foreign objects or untested herbal remedies.
"Safe" was generally classified as trained health workers using a WHO-recommended method during an appropriate time in the pregnancy.
The vast majority (97 percent) of unsafe abortions occurred in low-income regions and developing countries. In south-central Asia, less than 1 in 2 abortions were safe. In Latin America, as well as large parts of Africa, that figure was 1 in 4.
Northern Europe and North America were the safest regions. According to the study, this was thanks to "less restrictive laws on abortion, high contraceptive use, high economic development, high levels of gender equality, and well-developed health infrastructures." Eastern Asia and China had a similar level of safety to Europe and North America, despite many areas still being considered "developing".
The availability of modern medicine and legal abortions is the most obvious contributing factor to these figures and trends. However, the study also highlights the importance of other social and cultural influences, including social stigma towards abortions, gender equality, and views on contraception.
“It is remarkable that, despite being preventable, 25.1 million unsafe abortions were estimated to have occurred annually between 2010 and 2014, 97 percent in low-income regions,” Dr Kristina Gemzell-Danielsson, of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, wrote in an editorial response to the study.
“[The study authors] emphasise the importance of liberal abortion laws, economic development, evidence-based medicine, and gender equality for abortion safety.”