Roe v. Wade anniversary: Study says 'unsafe' abortions on rise

Roe v. Wade, the landmark legislation legalizing abortion in the United States, marks its 39th year this week. As Americans debate abortion rights in the midst of an election year, a new study indicates abortion rates are steadying worldwide, though the frequency of dangerous abortions is rising. Here are the answers to five questions related to abortion laws globally, and their effects on women.

1. What are the rates of abortion around the world?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A woman holds a sign in the rain as abortion rights protesters arrive to prepare for a counter protest against March for Life anti-abortion demonstrators on the 39th anniversary of the Roe vs Wade decision, in front of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, on Monday.

A new report published Jan. 19 by The Lancet, a UK-based, independent medical journal, found that a steady decline in abortion rates worldwide since 1995 stopped in 2003, and remained steady through 2008.

The study was funded by government agencies and foundations in the US and Europe and analyzed data previously gathered separately by the World Health Organization, the Guttmacher Institute, and the UN Population Division. 

Why abortions have halted their decline could be influenced by numerous factors, including access to sex education, contraception, and changes in abortion laws. The findings of the report, which included analysis by the Guttmacher Institute on the safety of abortions worldwide, correspond with findings from previous United Nations’ contraceptive use studies. The UN indicated there were stabilized levels of contraceptive use at the same time abortion rates plateaued.

After 2003, abortion rates were close to 29 per 1000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 years old.  This was down from the 1995 rate of 35 per 1000 women in the same age range.
Various social trends can have an effect on abortion rates, the Lancet report states, though they are difficult to gather local data on, including more women entering the labor force, a rise in the age when women marry, or more sexual activity outside of marriage. The halt in the decline in the rate of global abortions could also be a result of stagnating levels of funding for international family planning, says Cathy Solter, Senior Fellow at Pathfinder International, a nonprofit focused on maternal health and education in developing countries.
Access to contraception may factor into the level rate of abortions. “The contraceptive prevalence rate has increased in many countries but access to contraception has not kept up with the demand,” says Ms. Solter in a telephone interview. In other words, more people are seeking small families and space between pregnancies, she says, but they can’t always access contraception to match their demand.

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