Abortion policy – restrict access, and see deaths increase…

January 15, 2013 by
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Abortions were outlawed in Romania in 1966 until the death of the dictator in 1989.  Previously, under the Soviet regime, they had been readily available.

Now a study – Abortion, contraception, maternal mortality and fertility in Romania during the period 1965–2010 – published in today’s edition of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care shows the effects of that policy: a shocking rise in maternal deaths.

Women, it seems – as many have suggested, but not previously been able to prove using research – don’t stop having abortions if these procedures are outlawed or made more difficult. They carry on ending unwanted pregnancies using any method they can – however unsafe. The study demonstrates that limiting abortion does not prevent women from seeking pregnancy terminations but simply increases the risks they face.

Says Professor Malcolm Potts, one of three authors and British director of the Bixby Centre for Population, Health and Sustainability at the University of California, Berkeley : ‘Countries that increasingly seek to restrict access to abortion and contraception should look and learn from Romania’s example… All legislators in Britain and elsewhere who really care about women’s safety – and, indeed, women’s lives – need to pay attention to these findings.’

Moreover, the study showed that when access to abortion was restored, abortion rates actually began to fall as women were also offered better access to contraception, too. In the long run, high quality family planning information was more useful in seeing the number of terminations reduced than blanket restrictions.

Key findings from the study reveal:

  • Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed abortion in order to increase Romania’s fertility rate. However, after nearly doubling initially, it soon fell back to the level before abortion was outlawed as women gradually found solutions for regulating their fertility either through contraceptives procured illegally or through illegal abortions
  • For the 30 years abortion was outlawed, maternal mortality from unsafe abortion rocketed to an incredible 147 per 100 000 live births before falling rapidly following the fall of Ceausescu’s regime to 5.2 per 100 000 live births in 2010
  • Following the fall of Ceausescu’s regime, the rise in contraceptive use has been accompanied by a decisive fall in the abortion rate from 163 per 1000 women in 1990 to 10.1 in 2010

UK-based experts agree: Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) says: ‘When women cannot obtain abortion legally in their own country, they either travel to countries where they can, or they risk their health by resorting to unlawful means at home.’

Kate Guthrie, spokesperson for the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare adds: “This study starkly demonstrates the risks, often with fatal consequences, that women will take to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Equally it shows the dramatic impact that easy access to contraception had on abortion.”

So when UK anti-abortion campaigners demand initiatives to restrict access to abortion – such as MP Nadine Dorries’s proposals reducing the time limit in which legal abortions can be obtained (from the current 24 weeks down to somewhere between 12 and 20 weeks), we know now what this could mean for the women actually affected. Public policy makers have been handed a rare gift in this piece of research – they should use it wisely.

About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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