Making Abortion Illegal Does Not Reduce Abortion Rate, Study Finds

By Christine Cupaiuolo — October 12, 2007

“A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it,” writes Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times.

Moreover, the researchers found that abortion was safe in countries where it was legal, but dangerous in countries where it was outlawed and performed clandestinely. Globally, abortion accounts for 13 percent of women’s deaths during pregnancy and childbirth, and there are 31 abortions for every 100 live births, the study said.

The results of the study, a collaboration between scientists from the World Health Organization in Geneva and the Guttmacher Institute in New York, a reproductive rights group, are being published Friday in the journal Lancet.

According to the study, the number of abortions worldwide dropped from about 46 million in 1995 to slightly less than 42 million in 2003. About 20 million unsafe abortions are performed each year, mostly in countries where abortion is illegal, and 67,000 women die as a result of complications from these abortions. Here is the study’s abstract; registration is required for the full text.

The kicker is the study found that access to contraceptives is the best way to reduce abortion rates — not making abortion illegal. This, of course, is what feminist health advocates have been arguing for some time. Abortion rates in Eastern Europe, for instance, declined 50 percent since the fall of Communism allowed easier access to contraceptives. Here’s another example cited in the NYT story — and a look at how U.S. politics comes into play:

In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus only on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate was 54 per 1,000 women in 2003, more than twice the rate in the United States, 21 per 1,000 in that year. The lowest rate, 12 per 1,000, was in Western Europe, with legal abortion and widely available contraception.

The Bush administration’s multibillion-dollar campaign against H.I.V./AIDS in Africa has directed money to programs that promote abstinence before marriage, and to condoms only as a last resort. It has prohibited the use of American money to support overseas family planning groups that provide abortions or promote abortion as a method of family planning.

Rachel Larris at RH Reality Check has more analysis

Plus: Earlier this month, in a piece about the history of border crossings between the United States and Mexico for safe, legal abortions, Gloria Feldt wrote:

Abortion, legal or not, exists in all societies because women the world over want a few simple things: to make a decent life for the children they have — in the U.S., over 60 percent are mothers with one or more children when they choose abortion — and the right to their own lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. And because unintended pregnancies inevitably occur for a variety of reasons.

The difference is that when abortion is clandestine, women die or suffer debilitating illness such as infection or infertility. And in a profound sense, the psychological stigma of going to the back alley instead of the front door of a medical facility is harder to bear than the risk of infection, for it signals complete disregard for women’s moral capacity to think and make responsible decisions.

And in a follow-up piece, Feldt and Maria Luisa Sanchez Fuentes, executive director of the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE) Mexico, describe the legacy of Rosaura “Rosie” Jiménez, a 27-year-old mother and college student who died 30 years ago from an infection caused by a botched illegal abortion.

Unable to afford an abortion on her own, Jiménez is the first known casualty of the Hyde Amendment [PDF], which denies federal funding for abortion to low-income women who depend on Medicaid for health services.

“In her memory, October is designated Abortion Access Month in the U.S,” they write. “The reproductive health crime perpetrated against Rosie is symbolic of the 68,000 women and girls who die every year globally as a result of oppressive laws and lack of access to safe abortions. But these deaths are a miniscule part of the story of illness, misery, and suffering that can be averted by guaranteeing that abortion is safe, legal and accessible.”

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