Public Health

Abortions Decline, Despite More Liberal Laws Worldwide

Abortions are becoming less common around the world, even as more countries ease abortion laws.

In a report looking at abortion trends around the world, the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit reproductive rights organization, estimates that the number of abortions worldwide dropped to about 42 million in 2003 from a little over 45 million in 1995.

The decline shows "legal abortion does not cause abortion," Sue Cohen, director of government affairs at Guttmacher tells us. "And illegal abortion does not make abortion go away."

Over the last decade, the rate of abortions was down in every part of the world. Most of the decline occurred where abortion has long been legal, and had practically become a de facto form of contraception. In Eastern Europe and countries that are now part of the Russian Federation, during the abortion rate fell to 45 per 1,000 women of child-bearing age in 2003 from 69 from 1,000 women of child-bearing age.

"As the East has become open to the West, contraception has started to take hold," and more women are preventing unintended pregnancies, Cohen says.

With the decline of abortion in developed countries, the highest rates of abortion have shifted to developing countries which often have some of the most restrictive abortion laws.

Illegal abortions are riskier abortions. Even with some developing countries, such as Thailand and Iran, easing abortion restrictions since 1997, unsafe abortions held pretty steady, slipping to 14 from 15 per 1,000 women.

Some 70,000 women die each year from unsafe abortions, either those induced by women themselves or performed by unskilled people.

The Population Research Institute, a Catholic-based group questions how the Guttmacher Institute arrives at its statistics. Colin Mason, the media director finds it curious for example that Guttmacher would claim 250,000 illegal abortions in Colombia when according to Mason, the country's Minister of Health says that just 50 women sought abortions after they became legal.

"If there is such an unmet need and they are in a country like Columbia spreading the word about abortion," Mason contends, "You would think we would see more than 50 if there were more than 250,000 every year."

The Guttmacher Institute's figures are estimates. While there is no way to know for sure exactly how many abortions actually occur around the world, John Stover of the Futures Institute, an independent think tank, says the Guttmacher researchers supplemented available data with valid indirect methods, such as national surveys on fertility and family planning. "It's not a perfect system," Stover says, but "it's as good as you can do."

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