Growing consensus on need for safe abortion

Posted: 29 October 2007

More than 700 public health experts, government representatives and activists from over 60 countries attended the first-ever global conference of its kind, on safe abortion, from 23-24 October in London. The conference renewed commitment and strengthened alliances for expanding access to safe abortion care worldwide.

Organised by Marie Stopes International (MSI), in association with Ipas and UK Abortion Rights, the Global Safe Abortion Conference confronted challenges and highlighted successes in ending deaths and injuries from unsafe abortion, the leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity in the developing world.

It coincided with the 40th anniversary of the passing of the UK Abortion Act in October 1967, which dramatically reduced death and morbidity from abortion in Britain. The conference was addressed by Lord David Steel, the main architect of that legislation, who stressed that "no Act of Parliament can abolish abortion - but it can make the difference between safe and unsafe abortion as the 1967 Act has."

In his opening address, Marie Stopes International's Chief Executive Dana Hovig said: "Despite a few islands of backwardness, such as Nicaragua and the current US administration, there is momentum, a growing consensus about the need for safe abortion.

"Country after country is legalising. Portugal, Nepal, Ghana, Ethiopia. Mexico City has given life, light, and hope to women in Latin America. Access to safe abortion is increasing. Contraceptive use is rising. Medical abortion can transform our world, and dramatically increase access."

Dr Alfredo Toruño, a Nicaraguan obstetrician, deplored the recent tightening of the law in Nicaragua, and said that research carried out since the law had been passed suggested that more, not fewer, abortions were taking place. He mentioned the case of a mother of three whose children had been taken into care when she was imprisoned for undergoing an abortion.

Millennium Goals

Dr Fred Sai, former President of IPPF and now Adviser to the President of Ghana, stressed that promoting the availability of safe abortion should be "part of the international political agenda to achieve Millennium Development Goals 3 and 5" ('Promote gender equality and empower women' and 'Improve maternal health').

Delegates signed a Global Call to Action for Women's Access to Safe Abortion, which urges government authorities and donors to commit increased resources to ensuring the wide availability of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and safe abortion services in both the public and private sectors. Organisers will continue to collect signatures online and seek institutional endorsement of the Call to Action, which will then be introduced at key inter-governmental meetings as a tool to influence policy and generate funding to tackle the issue of unsafe abortion.

Each year unsafe abortion claims 66,500 lives, almost entirely in poor countries, and injures 5 million more women and girls. New data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute has shown that while the number of abortions performed globally has fallen slightly from 46 million in 1995 to 42 million in 2003, unsafe abortions have tragically increased.

"By any measure, this situation is deplorable," said Bert Koenders, Minister for Development Cooperation in The Netherlands, in the conference's closing plenary. "Unsafe abortion is a major killer."

Minister Koenders echoed a theme heard frequently throughout the two-day conference when he called for liberalising abortion laws, something The Netherlands - which reports one of the lowest abortion rates in the world - did in 1981.

"Legal barriers serve only to make women wait longer and force them to seek clandestine and unsafe care," he added. "The simple fact of holding an event like this helps us break the silence. We can save the lives of women and girls around the world."