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70,000 a year die from illegal abortions

October 19, 2009

The Guttmacher Institute recently published a study of worldwide abortions and tried especially to tally as many illegal abortions as possible. Admittedly impossible to measure, these procedures claim tens of thousands of lives every year. While the number 70,000 is staggeringly high, I feel certain that this figure sadly could not represent all deaths, as there is no way all “back alley” abortions could be accounted for in this statistic due to the harsh punishments to those caught performing or receiving them.

According to the study, 41.6 million terminations were performed worldwide in 2003, and 19.7 million were “unsafe and clandestine”. The majority of these were performed in countries with restrictive abortion laws. These studies are always shocking for people on both sides of the abortion debate. I imagine anti-choicers’ jaws dropping at the staggeringly high number. Well, we’ve found some common ground. My jaw dropped too, but for different reasons.

Illegal abortions are a problem for everyone. They are a problem especially for the women who die or are maimed or sterilized as a result. They are part of the greater problem of global maternal health. They are a problem for all of us. To put the number of deaths in context, approximately 58,000 US soldiers died in service during the Vietnam War. In New York City, once the “murder capital” of the US, 516 homicides were committed  in 2008. It is estimated that 100,000 Iraqis have died since the war in Iraq began six years ago.

The number of deaths due to illegal abortions should shock us all. News sources, politicians and civilians of both genders are concerned with the figures stated above, and rightly so, and yet I found this article about 70,000 deaths in the Life & Style section of The Guardian.

What will it take for deaths from illegal abortions to become an important story? Why was this story posted in a section of the newspaper usually reserved for Op Eds about the newest shoe trend? Could it possibly, incredulously be because 100% of those who died were women?

Virtually all abortions performed in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean were unsafe.

In countries where abortions were legal, most were performed in an appropriate medical facility. Most unsafe abortions were performed in countries where terminations were illegal; the clandestine, unsafe procedure was a woman’s only choice to terminate. In Nicaragua, where abortion has recently been outlawed even if the woman’s life is at risk, the International Planned Parenthood Federation has seen an increase in “women’s deaths and teenage suicides”.  I would very much like to know the demographic breakdown of women who terminated legally and illegally. How many women were younger than 18? How many women were impregnated through consensual sex?

Countries must take practical steps to decrease this number as they would with any other cause of so many civilian deaths. Oral contraceptives and condoms are 99% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies if used properly, and yet countries do not make their distribution or use a priority. This same study found that only 28% of married African women use contraceptives. There is no breakdown of how many deaths occur in each country, but with dangers for both those who decide to terminate pregnancies and those who decide to give birth, this low rate of contraceptive use is astounding. Worldwide, as the use of contraceptives has increased from 54% to 63% of married women, abortion rates have fallen from 69 to 55 for every 1,000 women ages 15-44.

“Women will continue to seek abortion whether it is legal or not as long as the unmet need for contraception remains high. Our hope is that the new report will help inform a public debate in which all too often emotion trumps science,” – Dr. Sharon Camp, institute president.

I find so much of anti-choicer’s vitriol focuses on the idea of a woman who, after consensual sex with no thought to the possible consequences, decides to terminate a pregnancy because it is inconvenient. We know this distorted image does not represent the average woman who terminates a pregnancy, and yet, as Dr. Camp expressed,  in this debate “emotion trumps science”. With a wider availability of contraceptives, women could have agency over their own bodies and would not have to risk their lives to terminate pregnancies.

While blowhards keep arguing, women are dying, and this is an unacceptable loss for all of us.

(Read this and other studies here. Read the Guardian article here.)

One Comment
  1. Jessica Mack permalink*
    October 21, 2009 10:00 am

    I want to point out that you say 70,000 die from “illegal” abortions, but that’s not actually true. It’s “unsafe” which is an important point because women who live in countries where abortion is legal — either only in certain circumstance, or widely legal, are still dying from unsafe abortions because of how difficult access is. It’s just my opinion that to stress the “illegal” somehow helps to stigmatize women who seek terminations in a range of desperate situations. Some are technically illegal, yes, but many women dying, such as in India, could very well have procured legal abortions, but they aren’t being given the access, empowerment, knowledge, or ability to do so.

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