Unsafe abortions kill 70,000 women a year

The Alan Guttmacher Institute has issued a new report on global abortion rates. They found that while the total number of abortions globally fell from 45.5 million in 1995 to 41.6 million in 2003, 20 million unsafe abortions still occur every year. That’s a huge number. These 20 million unsafe abortions kill 70,000 women each year and seriously harm millions more.

Those were not the only surprising numbers in the report. It also found that abortion rates are unaffected by the legal status of abortion. The report reads, “abortion occurs at roughly equal rates in regions where it is broadly legal and in regions where it is highly restricted. The key difference is safety—illegal, clandestine abortions cause significant harm to women, especially in developing countries.” Restrictive abortion laws seem to be forcing women into dangerous abortions, not preventing abortions. In fact, from 1995 to 2003, abortion laws grew less restrictive, even as abortion rates fell.

What did prevent abortions was increased contraceptive use. The past decade has seen an increase in contraceptive use, a decrease in unintended pregnancies, and a decrease in abortions. The worldwide unintended pregnancy rate declined from 69 per 1000 in 1995 to 55 per 1000 in 2008. The proportion of married women using contraception increased from 54% in 1990 to 63% in 2003. It’s a correlation, not a definite causality, but I don’t think it’s a big jump to argue that increased contraceptive use led to decreased unintended pregnancies.

It seems clear to me that we know what to do to reduce the overall abortion rate and the terrible death toll of unsafe abortion: make contraction available to couples who want it.