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 number of illegal abortions in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s range from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. 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, according to the World Health Organization.
Legalization of abortion allows women to obtain timely abortions, thereby reducing the risk of complications. In 1970, one in four abortions in the United States took place at or after 13 weeks gestation. In 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 92 percent of abortions were performed within the first trimester (64 percent were performed at under eight weeks gestation). Few abortions (7 percent) were performed at 14–20 weeks’ gestation, and even fewer (1.3 percent) were performed greater than 21 weeks gestation.
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 percent) occur in developing countries. In countries where abortion remains unsafe, it is a leading cause of maternal mortality.
Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, as Guttmacher Institute explains, the abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa, and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America — regions 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.
For more information on efforts to make abortion safe and legal in the United States, see U.S. Abortion History.