Unwanted pregnancy—medical and ethical dimensions

J Ravindran
Medical Journal of Malaysia 2003, 58: 23-35
Globally, abortion mortality accounts for approximately 13% of all maternal mortality. Unsafe abortion procedures, untrained abortion providers, restrictive abortion laws and high maternal mortality and morbidity from abortion tend to occur together. Unplanned and unwanted pregnancies constitute a serious public health responsibility. While fertility has declined by half in developing countries, the motivation to control and space births has risen faster than the rate of contraceptive use. Preventing maternal mortality and morbidity from abortion in countries where these remain high is a matter of good public health policy and medical practice, and constitutes an important part of safe motherhood initiatives. A range of positive steps has been taken to reduce deaths and morbidity from abortion in a growing number of countries over the past 15 years. Making abortion legal is an essential prerequisite in making it safe. In this respect, changing the law does matter and assertions to the contrary are ill conceived and unsupported in practice. Although, in many countries, trends towards safer abortion have often occurred prior to or in the absence of changes in the law, legal changes need to take place if safety is to be sustained for all women. Religious laws may also require attention when legal change is being contemplated. There are three main ways of approaching this problem: liberalizing the existing law within the penal or criminal code; partially or fully legalizing abortion through a positive law or a court ruling; and decriminalising abortion by taking it out of the law. Women's health groups and other advocates, parliamentarians and health professionals, can work together to support the right of women not to die from unsafe abortions and to ensure they receive treatment for complications. Committed doctors can make a difference by providing treatment for abortion complications, interpreting the law in a liberal way and providing safe services where these are legal as well as training providers in the safest techniques to reduce mortality and morbidity. Although law, policy and women's rights are central to this issue, making abortions safe is above all a public health responsibility of governments. Moreover, reducing maternal mortality by making abortions safe is also an important part of the international commitment made in Cairo in 1994 at the ICPD and reaffirmed at the Cairo meeting in 1999.

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