Abortion rates reach historic low in developed countries

Women in developed countries are having fewer abortions than ever before, new research has revealed.

A new analysis of global abortions shows a stark and troubling divide between what's happening in wealthier, developed countries versus their poorer and less developed counterparts.

The paper, published Wednesday in the journal The Lancet, represents the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted on the subject. Worldwide, it shows, an average 56 million abortions took place annually from 2010 to 2014. That translates to 35 procedures per every 1,000 women of childbearing age, which means that roughly 3.5 percent of women in this age group had an abortion.

“In developed countries, the continued fall in abortion rates is largely due to increased use of modern contraception that has given women greater control over the timing and number of children they want,” Gilda Sedgh, the lead author at the Gutmacher Institute, said in a statement.

The numbers are significantly less than a decade earlier -- from 1990 to 1994, there were on average 40 abortions annually per every 1,000 women -- and should be a cause for celebration for many in the reproductive health field as well as for those who oppose abortion. However, the global picture masks differences between the developed and developing world.

In developing countries during the same period, abortions went from 39 to 37 per 1,000 women while the total number of procedures spiked from 39 million to 50 million annually; a situation that the authors blame on lack of access to modern methods of contraception that could have reduced unwanted pregnancies.

"We think this is because the desire for small families and precisely timed births has outpaced the uptake of contraceptive use," Sedgh said.

The analysis also found that the frequency of abortion appears to be roughly the same in countries with restrictive abortion laws as it is in countries where the practice is legal. The abortion rate in countries where abortion is illegal or allowed only to save a woman’s life is 37 abortions per 1000 women, while the rate in countries where the practice is legal is 34 abortions per 1000 women.

“Estimates of the proportion of abortions that are unsafe are under development but we already know nearly 300 million dollars are spent each year on treating the complications from unsafe abortions,” said co-author Bela Ganatra. “The high rates of abortion seen in our study also provide further evidence of the need to improve and expand access to effective contraceptive services. Investing in modern contraceptive methods would be far less costly to women and society than having unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions. So this study should act as a wakeup call to the international community that we must do more.”

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