In the most comprehensive analysis of abortion rates around the world, researchers have found that a quarter of all pregnancies end in termination. Carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute, the report found that the number of abortions per woman of childbearing age is currently resting at around 35 per 1,000 women. This equates to around 56 million terminations taking place around the globe per year between 2010 and 2014, a quarter of all pregnancies.
The rate has actually dropped from that seen between the years of 1990 and 1994, when it was up at 40 per 1,000 women. But the authors of the study, published in The Lancet, caution that this global picture “masks differences between the developed and developing world.” This is because while the rate of terminations recorded in the west has indeed decreased, sitting at a 25 year low in the U.S. for example, the rate of terminations in the developing world has spiked.
The reasons cited for this difference are access to and education about contraception. “The high rates of abortion seen in our study provide further evidence of the need to improve and expand access to effective contraceptive services,” explains Dr. Bela Ganatra, from the WHO. “Investing in modern contraceptive methods would be far less costly to women and to society than having unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions.”
Things, however, might not be as straightforward as giving women improved access to contraception. Many women talked to said that they either knew about it, but that they didn’t use it for fear of side effects, simply thought that there was a low risk of getting pregnant in the first place, or did not want the stigma of using contraception. It seems that education about these issues could be of use, or the development of new methods of contraception that address these problems in a woman-centric way.
In amongst all the data, the study also looked at differences in the rates of abortions in those countries where it is legal and illegal. They found that the laws made no difference, and that if a woman was going to get an abortion, she would do so regardless of the legality of it. Instead, the laws simply push many women to seek illegal abortions in unsafe environments. In fact, out of the 56 million abortions that take place globally, over 21 million are deemed “unsafe” by the WHO, leading to the deaths of 47,000 women a year.
Eastern Europe saw the largest drop in abortion rate, from 88 per 1,000 women to 42, but interestingly, Western Europe was the only region to see them rise. It is suggested that this could be due to the migration of people from the East to the West. Latin America has the highest rate of abortion of any region, where around a third of all pregnancies end in a termination, and the study has also done away with the myth that it is usually unwed teens who get them, as 73 percent of all abortions globally were obtained by married women.
The study gives a vital insight into a subject that is highly controversial and still taboo in many places. The authors stress that these women's health and the risks they take should be put at the forefront of any discussion, and that more should be done in the developing world, where the vast majority of terminations occur.