More than 55 million abortions take place worldwide every year, and nearly half of those ― a whopping 25.5 million abortions annually ― are unsafe, according to a new study released Wednesday.
The research offers evidence that women around the world continue to have abortions even when they live in areas where trained providers are scant and where the procedure is illegal.
But it does not have to be that way.
“Making abortion safe is incredibly simple,” study author Dr. Bela Ganatra, a researcher with the World Health Organization (WHO), told HuffPost. “It can be integrated into basic health care. It’s not a high-resource intervention ... it’s not rocket science.”
Indeed, complications from in-clinic and medication abortions (when done following the correct procedures and under the guidance of a trained individual) are extremely rare.
“Despite that,” Ganatra continued, “we still have one in two abortions that are unsafe because of all the other barriers that exist around the issue.”
Ganatra and co-researchers from the WHO and the Guttmacher Institute combed through government surveys and research studies conducted between 2010 and 2014 looking at who had abortions and under what circumstances those abortions were done.
They also considered indirect factors that influence safety, such as the availability of trained abortion providers in a given area as well as the availability of medications like mifepristone and misoprostol (i.e. “the abortion pill”), with the understanding that surveys are unable to truly capture the number of women having abortions outside of medical settings.
The researchers made a point to move away from classifying abortions as simply “safe” or “unsafe,” and instead grouped them as “safe,” “less safe” and “least safe.”
Though these classifications might seem like a minor shift, Ganatra argued that they represent an important step forward in creating a more nuanced picture of abortion safety worldwide, particularly as methods like the abortion pill become more popular.
“It’s increasingly common that women are not using the most dangerous methods of inserting sticks, or doing uterine massage, or using coat hangers,” she explained.
The abortion pill has been shown to be extremely safe, even when women take it at home and consult with a trained provider via video. But many women are using it in circumstances the researchers consider”less safe.” So, a woman might purchase the drug online and take it with no supervision from a trained professional who can monitor her dosage and be available should any complications arise. That would be considered “less safe.”
About 55 percent of all abortions across the world are safe, the researchers found. Those procedures are done using the most recent methods and with the support of a trained professional.
Another 31 percent fell into that less safe category, which would also include a woman who had her abortion with a trained, qualified professional who used an outdated method.
The remaining 14 percent of abortions were considered least safe. Those women turned to the most dangerous, invasive methods and/or untrained providers. Overall, the vast majority of “less safe” and “least safe” abortions take place in Africa, Asia and Latin America — areas that tend to have the most restrictive laws.
Ganatra said that she hopes researchers will do a better job studying how women actually have abortions around the world, which is difficult because it tends to be stigmatized and because so many abortions happen outside of health systems.
For now, the data, published in the journal The Lancet this week, simply adds further weight to the longstanding argument that banning abortion does not make it go away. It simply makes it less safe for women.