© Patrick Farrell

Safe abortion care

Without proper healthcare or sanitary conditions, abortions can be fatal.

Unsafe abortions are a major problem in the developing world.

Performed by unqualified personnel, and/or in unhygienic environments, unsafe abortions can cause life-threatening complications in girls and women.

These can include severe bleeding, infections and peritonitis (a swelling of the stomach).

These complications are known to cause injury and sterility and even death: they are among the most common causes of maternal mortality worldwide. But unsafe abortions are one of the few emergencies leading to maternal death that can be anticipated and prevented.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 25 million unsafe abortions take place each year. Only around five million of these women are admitted to hospital.

Since 2004, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has provided access to voluntary safe abortions for women around the world, with the objective of reducing maternal mortality and suffering.

In 2018, MSF treated over 24,000 women and girls with abortion-related concerns and complications, many of which resulted from unsafe attempts to terminate pregnancy. 

We also provided safe abortion care to over 11,000 women and girls who requested termination of pregnancy. 

Abortion around the world

The vast majority of unsafe abortions take place in developing countries. 

Ninety-seven percent of abortions in Africa are unsafe, as are 95 percent in Latin America. Only six percent of abortions are unsafe in developed countries.

In many societies, there are strong social standards and prejudices linked to abortion, including a certain degree of reluctance to practice, or even talk about it.

We take these social considerations into account, reaching a balance between personal opinion and professional responsibility.

In countries with particularly strict rules on abortion, we work with international volunteers who assume the responsibility for carrying out procedures.

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Abortion law

Abortions are completely illegal in only six countries around the world, none of which are in Africa or Asia: Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Malta and Vatican City.

Ninety-seven percent of countries allow abortions when it is necessary to save the mother’s life. Sixty percent extend this to when it is necessary for health reasons (including mental). Furthermore, over 50 percent of countries allow abortions for pregnancies caused by rape.

However, it is not uncommon for local attitudes and beliefs to generate legal action.

We balance local attitudes and abortion law by focusing on the respect and safety of the women involved.

We also endeavour to communicate clearly about the issue in areas where we work, explaining our medical mission, and our arguments and justifications for providing this type of care to women who request it.

Confidentiality and communication

Our abortions are 100 percent voluntary and we provide confidentiality to all our patients.

To women who request abortion, it is vital that we communicate clearly about the issue, explaining our medical mission, and our justifications for providing this type of care.

Safe abortion access for all who need it

MSF has teamed up with HowToUseAbortionPill.org to create a free, open-source, evidence-based online course on medication abortion, or abortion with pills. Our goal is to ensure that everyone has access to factual, scientifically accurate information about abortion—no matter who you are, where you are, or where you are going. 

Last reviewed: 29 January 2020

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