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The Impact of Illegal Abortion

Historically, women around the world have tried to end their unintended pregnancies whether abortion is legal or not, often jeopardizing their safety and health by self-inducing or seeking a dangerous illegal procedure.  While there is very little relationship between abortion legality and abortion incidence, there is a strong correlation between abortion legality and abortion safety.

  • Estimates of the annual number of illegal abortions in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s range from 200,000 to 1.2 million. Prior to Roe v. Wade, as many as 5,000 American women died annually as a direct result of unsafe abortions. Today, abortion is one of the most commonly performed clinical procedures in the United States, and the death rate from abortion is extremely low: 0.6 per 100,000 procedures.1

  • Legalization of abortion allows women to obtain timely abortions, thereby reducing the risk of complications. href="http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3502503.html">In 1970, one in four abortions in the United States took place after 13 weeks gestation.Today, 88% of all abortions in the U.S. take place before the end of the first trimester.

  • The World Health Organization defines unsafe abortion as a procedure for terminating a pregnancy that is performed by an individual lacking the necessary skills, or in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards, or both. Unsafe abortion is common in places where abortion is illegal. Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and nearly all unsafe abortions (98%) occur in developing countries. In countries where abortion remains unsafe it is a leading cause of maternal mortality.2

  • Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin AmericaŚregions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.2

For more information, see the Guttmacher Institute's Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide.


1. World Health Organization (WHO), Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the Incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2008, sixth ed., Geneva: WHO, 2011.

2. Guttmacher Institute. Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide. Accessed 1.14.14 at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_IAW.html.

Written by: Based on a Fact Sheet by The Abortion Access Project; updated by OBOS contributors
Last revised: January 2014

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