Access to Safe Abortion is a Matter of Human Right
Abortion law permits, prohibits, restricts, or otherwise regulates the availability of abortion. Abortion has been a controversial subject in many societies through history on religious, moral, ethical, practical, and political grounds. It has been banned frequently and otherwise limited by law. However, abortions continue to be common in many areas, even where they are illegal. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), abortion rates are similar in countries where the procedure is legal and in countries where it is not, due to unavailability of modern contraceptives in areas where abortion is illegal.
An abortion is a medical procedure that ends a pregnancy. Worldwide, an estimated 1 in 4 pregnancies end in an abortion every year. But while the need for abortion is common, access to safe and legal abortion services is far from guaranteed for those who may need abortion services. Access to safe abortion services is a human right. Under international human rights law, everyone has a right to life, a right to health, and a right to be free from violence, discrimination, and torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Human rights law clearly spells out that decisions about your body are yours alone – this is what is known as bodily autonomy. Forcing someone to carry on an unwanted pregnancy, or forcing them to seek out an unsafe abortion, is a violation of their human rights, including the rights to privacy and bodily autonomy.
Unsafe abortions are defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “a procedure for terminating an unintended pregnancy carried out either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment that does not confirm to minimal medical standards, or both.” According to the WHO:
- Six out of 10 of all unintended pregnancies end in an induced abortion.
- Around 45% of all abortions are unsafe, of which 97% take place in developing countries.
- Unsafe abortion is a leading – but preventable – cause of maternal deaths and morbidities. It can lead to physical and mental health complications and social and financial burdens for women, communities and health systems.
- Lack of access to safe, timely, affordable and respectful abortion care is a critical public health and human rights issue.
The vast majority of abortions result from unintended pregnancies. The estimated unintended pregnancy rates in developed and developing regions are 45 and 65 per 1,000 women aged 15–44, respectively, as of 2010–2014; both values represent significant declines since 1990–1994. Current rates are highest in Latin America and the Caribbean (96 per 1,000) and Africa (89 per 1,000).
- Globally, 61% of unintended pregnancies end in induced abortion in 2015-2019; regionally, this proportion ranges from 36% in Northern America to 70% in Europe.
To act on their growing preferences for smaller families and for better control over the timing of their births, people need improved access to modern contraceptives. Levels of unmet need for modern contraception are much higher among single, sexually active women than among in-union women because stigma continues to impede single women—especially adolescents—from getting contraceptive counselling and services.
Preventing unintended pregnancy goes a long way toward preventing abortions. Moreover, ensuring that people who desire to avoid pregnancy can use effective contraceptives if they want to is key to keeping women and children healthy. Deciding when and how many children to have is a fundamental human right, the benefits of which reverberate at every level—each individual, their family and society as a whole.
Guttmacher Lancet Institute: Unintended Pregnancy and Abortion Worldwide