Abortion, a Marker of Inequality

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Even though the number of unwanted pregnancies is diminishing overall, a quarter of all pregnancies are terminated each year by abortion (56 million out of a total of 224 million) according to WHO. Almost half of these present major risks (infections, hemorrhages, lesions, death). WHO therefore recommends measures to make abortion safe using appropriate methods performed by qualified staff. It also encourages states to respect SDG (sustainable development goals) commitments concerning access to sexual and reproductive health services (goal 3.7) and, in the name of human, recalls the obligation to provide care in the event of complications from an illegal abortion.

Legislation on abortion rights is varied and evolving (decriminalization or re-criminalization), and prohibitions not only fail to reduce the number of abortions but further increase the danger. Just over one-third of states authorize abortion with no legal restriction (even though restrictions exist in reality: practical conditions of access, delays, etc.), while others criminalize it (for women and medical personnel) with a total or partial ban (except in cases where the mother’s life is endangered, or for rape, incest, or malformation of the fetus). With the rise of conservative parties, campaigns calling abortion into question are reappearing (Poland and the United States, where legislation is specific to each federal state), but in May 2018, the Irish voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion. Legislation alone does not provide the adequate conditions to enable women to make a choice about giving birth.

Abortion rights in the world, 2017

Source: Global Abortion Policies Database, Geneva, WHO, 2018 (, consultation: March 2018).

Comment: The World Health Organization’s free-access database on national abortion policies puts forward numerous criteria (on rights, health services, and actors involved) with the aim of increasing transparency, responsibility and respect for women’s rights in support of its programs for preventing unsafe abortions. Only some of these criteria have been selected here; they show a global North-South contrast, with notable exceptions in each region.

Poor matern policies, the absence of sex education or access to methods of contraception and family planning more generally are the prime causes of unwanted pregnancies, which are frequent among poor adolescents. In some parts of the world, the continuing preference for boys leads to the selective abortion of girls; this is illegal, but the greater availability of ultrasound scanning has caused the practice to spread (particularly in India and China).

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" Abortion, a Marker of Inequality " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:

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