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WHO: One in four pregnancies worldwide ends in abortion

Although abortion rates are falling in developed countries, they remain high in developing countries where contraceptives are more difficult to obtain.

By Stephen Feller
Restricting access does not reduce the number of abortions performed worldwide, according to a new study showing increased access to contraceptives has gone much farther to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Photo by AppleZoomZoom/Shutterstock
Restricting access does not reduce the number of abortions performed worldwide, according to a new study showing increased access to contraceptives has gone much farther to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Photo by AppleZoomZoom/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, May 12 (UPI) -- Despite abortion rates falling by more than 40 percent in developed countries, the World Health Organization reports the annual number of abortions in developing regions of the world has remained unchanged in the last 25 years.

Nearly one in four pregnancies ends in abortion worldwide, with 90 percent of abortions occurring in developing countries where people have limited access to family planning services and contraceptives, the WHO and Guttmacher Institute found in a recent study.

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Rates for both abortion and birth have been dropping steadily in the United States in recent years, as a study last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the number of abortions was about the same as fetal loss -- a decrease by half since the mid-1970s, and the lowest it has been since 1973.

Researchers in the new study found expanded access to contraceptives is responsible for a healthy portion of the drop in abortions in developed countries, while 80 percent of unintended pregnancies in developing countries were tied specifically to the lack of access.

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The study also revealed restricting access to abortion services does not reduce the number of terminated pregnancies, suggesting women opt for dangerous, unsanctioned procedures if abortion is illegal.

"These trends suggest that women and couples in the developed world have become more successful at avoiding unintended pregnancies -- the cause of most abortions -- over the last two decades," Dr. Gilda Sedgh, a researcher at the Guttmacher Institute, said in a press release. "High abortion rates are directly correlated to high levels of unmet contraceptive need. Our findings indicate that in many developing regions, women lack the contraceptive services they need and are unable to prevent pregnancies they do not want to have."

For the study, published in The Lancet, researchers used abortion data from government agencies, international sources and nationally representative studies to estimate overall abortion rates and compare them to available services and needs in their communities.

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Overall, researchers estimate there were 35 abortions per 1,000 women worldwide among women between the ages of 15 and 44 from 2010 to 2014, down from 40 per 1,000 in the four-year period from 1990 to 1994.

While the rate of abortions decreased, the total number increased from 50.4 million in the early 1990s to 56.3 million between 2010 to 2014. Roughly 25 percent of all pregnancies ended in abortion during the last five years, with rates declining in developed countries from 46 abortions per 1,000 women to 27, and from 39 to 37 in developing countries -- a decrease considered statistically insignificant -- during the last 25 years.

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In countries with more restrictive abortion laws and less access to contraceptives, the abortion rate was higher. In Latin America, where abortion is significantly restricted, the researchers found the highest rate in the world, where 32 percent of pregnancies were terminated.

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Making abortion illegal does not appear to reduce rates, researchers found, as they report 37 per 1,000 women have an abortion in countries where it is illegal or only permitted to save a woman's life and 34 of 1,000 women have one where it is legal and available.

In an editorial published alongside the study in The Lancet, researchers note most countries attempting to exert increased control over timing and number of children have done so by using contraceptives, rather than abortion.

"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 Dr. Bela Ganatra, a scientist at the WHO, said in a press release. "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."

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