Unsafe abortion

Posted: 1 December 2007

Women have always used abortion to control their fertility. Poor access to family planning services, shifts from rural to urban settings, poverty and hardship, increase in non-marital sexual activity, adolescent sexuality coupled with unprotected sex, all contribute to the continuing practice of abortion in the developing world.

Click here for WHO's world map showing the estimated annual unsafe abortion rates by region around 2000. For WHO's global and regional estimates of the incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2003, click here.

  • Out of nearly 50 million abortions performed in the world each year (30 million of them in developing countries), 19 million are unsafe.

  • Some 98 per cent of all unsafe abortions take place in developing countries. In 94 per cent of these countries, induced abortion is restricted by law, and there are often also low rates of use of modern reversible contraceptives and high levels of unmet need for family planning. The risk of dying from an unsafe abortion in a developing country is 1 in 250 procedures, while in developed countries it is 1 in 3,700 procedures.
Unsafe abortions, by age groups
Unsafe abortions, by age groups
In Africa, most unsafe abortions are performed on young women. Source: WHO
  • 59% of all unsafe abortions in Africa are among young women aged 15-24 years.

  • Although the medical abortion pill mifepristone (RU-486) is now legal in many European countries, China, Israel, and the United States, it is still unavailable in countries with the highest maternal mortality rates in Africa, South East Asia, South America and the Former Soviet Union. See also WHO's Frequently asked clinical questions about medical abortion.

  • Complications of unsafe abortion kill at least 68,000 women every year, all in developing countries: Africa (30,000), Asia (34,000), Latin America & the Caribbean (4,000). Hundreds of thousands of others experience disabilities, injury or infertility as a result of unsafe abortion. See also Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic (The Lancet October 2006).

  • At the ICPD+5 meeting (1999), governments acknowledged the public health risks of unsafe abortion and agreed that where abortion is legal, "health systems should train and equip health-service providers and should take other measures to ensure that such abortion is safe and accessible."