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More than 66000 women around the world die each year because of botched abortions, an international conference on safe abortion heard this week.
The conference in London, organised by the family planning body Marie Stopes International to mark the 40th anniversary of the UK's Abortion Act, called on all governments to recognise safe abortion as a basic human right.
Elizabeth Maguire, president of the reproductive rights organisation Ipas, said new data showed that the number of deaths from unsafe abortions had remained virtually unchanged over the last decade—and that in Africa it had even increased. This continuing toll was a “moral outrage and a gross violation of basic human rights,” she said. “How many more poor women and girls must suffer or die before we start taking action?”
A Nicaraguan obstetrician and gynaecologist, Arnoldo Toruno, said that his country's decision a year ago to outlaw abortion completely was already leading to many unnecessary deaths. The new law didn't stop abortions happening, he said—it only made them unsafe. A new study in his own hospital showed that 35% of women who were treated for miscarriage admitted they had had an induced abortion.
Dr Toruno said, “What is happening is a tragic example of politicians playing with women's lives. In fact, poor women are paying the price with their health and their lives. This is a real crisis.”
The country's new law also meant that some women who had had miscarriages—or even ectopic pregnancies—were not getting the treatment they needed, because the medical community was so afraid of violating the law.
Fred Sai, an adviser to the president of Ghana, told delegates that up to a third of maternal deaths in some African countries resulted from unsafe abortions.
“Women in developing countries are the most likely to suffer because of restrictive reproductive laws,” Professor Sai said. It was a paradox that often these laws were handed down by colonial powers that had now liberalised their own abortion laws, he said. “I often wish we could have gained our independence yesterday so we could inherit the British law that now exists rather than that of 50 years ago.”
But Christine Kaseba-Sata, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Zambia's University Teaching Hospital, said that even where laws were more liberal, this did not always benefit most women. In her country, for instance, abortion was legal.
The problem was that the law required women to get the permission of three doctors, one of whom had to be a specialist. Eighty per cent of doctors work in Zambia's capital, Lusaka, she pointed out; elsewhere it would be a luxury to find three doctors in a single hospital.
Because the providers were not available, women turned to “clandestine, illegal abortions.” As a result, many women were dying, and others were being left “reproductive cripples,” she said.