New figures from the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization (WHO) show that after a long period of decline, the global abortion rates have steadied. From 1995 to 2003, rates dropped from 35 per 1000 women of childbearing age to 29 per 1000, whereas the new study shows the 2008 rate is stable at 28 per 1000.

The United Nations says the slow down coincides with a plateau in the uptake of contraceptive use in developing countries, where there has been a big contraceptive drive in the last couple of decades, partly because of HIV and partly because of over population issues.

Sadly though, the report also makes a note of the fact that nearly half of all abortions in the developing world are unsafe and almost all unsafe abortions occur in developing countries around the world. The abortion rate is lower in the developed world, excluding Eastern Europe and comes in for 2008 at 17 per 1000 women of child bearing age, dropping slightly from 20 per 1000 in 1995.

Gilda Sedgh , lead author of the study and a senior researcher at the Guttmacher Institute says :

"The declining abortion trend we had seen globally has stalled, and we are also seeing a growing proportion of abortions occurring in developing countries, where the procedure is often clandestine and unsafe. This is cause for concern ... This plateau coincides with a slowdown in contraceptive uptake. Without greater investment in quality family planning services, we can expect this trend to persist."

Alarmingly, WHO figures state that 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide are caused by unsafe abortions, a tragedy considering the procedure is relatively simply and safely performed if the doctor and nurses are trained, have the correct facilities, cleanliness and medicines available to them. Unsafe abortion accounted for 220 deaths per 100,000 procedures in 2008, 350 times the rate associated with legal induced abortions in the United States (0.6 per 100,000). Unsafe abortion is also a significant cause of ill-health: Each year approximately 8.5 million women in developing countries experience abortion complications serious enough to require medical attention, and three million of them do not receive the needed care.

Iqbal H. Shah, of the WHO and a coauthor of the study said :

"Deaths and disability related to unsafe abortion are entirely preventable, and some progress has been made in developing regions. Africa is the exception, accounting for 17% of the developing world's population of women of childbearing age but half of all unsafe abortion related deaths ... Within developing countries, risks are greatest for the poorest women. They have the least access to family planning services and are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of an unsafe procedure. Poor women also have the least access to post abortion care, when they need treatment for complications."

The figures show conclusively that stricter abortion laws have no bearing upon number of abortions and in fact simply cause women to go through back street channels with unlicensed or unscrupulous practitioners. Whether you are for or against abortion or feel indifferent, it's impossible to argue against the numbers that demonstrate how too much regulation or prohibition simply creates an unsafe and over priced black market, much as prohibition of alcohol and drugs does. For example, the 2008 abortion rate was 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America, regions where abortion is highly restricted in almost all countries. In contrast, in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the rate is 12.

In contrast, the South African abortion laws are far more relaxed and the figures come in at only 15 per 1000, very close to European figures. Eastern Europe has a different scenario, with very high abortion rates coming in at 90 per 1000 in 1995 and falling to 44 per 1000 in 2003. There hasn't been much change in the rate since 2003, and it seems alarmingly high. Researchers put this down to low uptake of contraceptive methods such as the pill and IUD, while the population is generally more sexually liberated and less religious than in Africa and Latin America. Eastern Europe is also stereotyped for providing many prostitutes to West Europe, and this attitude towards sex may also increase the number of unwanted pregnancies.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet says :

"These latest figures are deeply disturbing. The progress made in the 1990s is now in reverse. Promoting and implementing policies to reduce the number of abortions is now an urgent priority for all countries and for global health agencies, such as WHO ... Condemning, stigmatizing, and criminalizing abortion are cruel and failed strategies. It's time for a public health approach that emphasizes reducing harm - and that means more liberal abortion laws."

Written By Rupert Shepherd