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Abortion advocates often argue that legalizing abortion makes it “safe” because when abortions are legal, women can openly seek out competent doctors to perform them, and where it is illegal, their abortions will likely be performed in “unsafe” conditions, therefore making illegal abortions “unsafe”.

However, modifying abortion with “unsafe” implies that some abortions can be safe while others are “unsafe”, and abortion is a medical procedure that always carries some risks for women and girls, even where it is legal and supposedly “safe”. In fact, so called “safe” abortions are performed under the best or safest of medical conditions.

In one study, 17 percent of women undergoing “safe” (i.e., legal) abortion procedures in the U.S. experienced physical complications (such as abdominal bleeding or pelvic infection) after the abortion. The percentage is likely higher when long-term physical effects are considered, not to mention psychological effects. Some of the short and long term adverse effects of abortion, legal or illegal include;

  • Accidental tearing of uterine artery, tearing of the cervix, or scaring of the uterine walls
  • Heavy bleeding, requiring blood transfusions
  • Abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and infection
  • Allergic reaction to drugs or anesthesia, sometimes causing convulsions, or worse
  • Heart attack, embolisms (caused by blood clots or other foreign matter in blood vessels)
  • Perforation of the uterus and damage to other internal or sterility
  • Increased risk of subsequent tubal pregnancies
  • Death (it is estimated that 20 percent of maternal deaths are due to abortion)
  • Guilt, anger, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts
  • Anniversary grief, flashbacks of abortion, memory repression
  • Sexual dysfunction, relationship problems
  • Eating disorders, sleep disorders
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

While the term “unsafe abortion” appears in multiple UN documents, nations are under no obligation to continue to accept “unsafe abortion” in new documents.

Whenever the term “unsafe abortion” is proposed, it should also come to mind that “induced abortion” is also unsafe and has consequences. ICIPD 12.17 states “since unsafe abortion is a major threat to the health and lives of women, research to understand and better address the determinants and consequences of induced abortion, including its effects on subsequent fertility, reproductive and mental health and contraceptive practice, should be promoted as well as research on treatment of complications of abortion are.”

This paragraph indicates that only “unsafe abortion” but also “induced abortion” can have ill effects on “fertility” and “reproductive and mental health.” Adding this ICPD excerpt, while also inserting “whether legal or illegal,” will prevent abortion rights activists from using the term “unsafe” abortions. It will also highlight the truth that all abortions can have serious negative health impacts on women.

Therefore it is important to note the following;

Abortion is a medical procedure, and as with any medical procedure, there are always health risks, even under the best of conditions, especially in developing countries. Therefore, modifying abortion with “safe”, even though this term is often used, is not only misleading, it is medically inaccurate.

Safe abortion is not only an oxymoron; it is a medical impossibility since every abortion is always “unsafe” for the mother since she may experience life-threatening complications or many of the other abortion-related complications, even if the abortion is performed under the best of circumstances and medical conditions.

Modifying “abortion” with “unsafe” is misleading as this implies that some abortions are without risk or “safe”, which is simply not true. All abortions carry risks for the mother regardless of the quality of medical care. Therefore, we cannot accept the terms either “safe” or “unsafe” before “abortion”.

Since abortion policies among States vary so widely and this is such a sensitive issue that we will likely never all agree upon, it would be better to delete all references to abortion in this document so we can focus on the main task at hand.

What is the purpose of inserting “safe” before abortion? Are we going to do this for every medical procedure we include or just for “abortion? This just does not make sense.

Can any medical procedure ever be considered entirely “safe” since all medical procedures carry some level of risk to the patient?

Discrimination against girls, often resulting from son preferences, in access to nutrition and health care services endangers their current and future health and well-being. Conditions that force girls into early marriage, pregnancy and child-bearing and subject them to harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation, pose grave health risks. Adolescent girls need, but too often do not have access to sex necessary health and nutrition service as they mature. Counselling and access to sexual and reproductive health information and services for adolescents are still inadequate or lacking completely, and a young woman’s right to privacy, confidentiality, respect and informed consent is often not considered. Adolescent girls are both biologically and psychologically more valuable than boys to sexual abuse, violence and prostitution and to the consequences of unprotected and premature sexual relations. The trend towards early sexual experience, combined with a lack of information and service but too often do not have access to necessary health information and services, increases the risk of unwanted and too early pregnancy, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as unsafe abortions. Early child-bearing continues to be an impediment to improvements in the educational, economic and social status of women in all parts of the world. Overall, for young women early marriage and early motherhood can severely curtail educational and employment opportunities are likely to have a long-term, adverse impact on the quality of their lives and the lives of their children. Young men are often not educated to respect women’s self-determination and to share responsibility with women in matters of sexuality and reproduction.

Further, women are subject to particular health risk due to inadequate responsiveness and lack of services to meet health needs related to sexuality and reproduction. Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of mortality and morbidity of women of reproductive age in many parts of developing world. Similar problems exist to a certain degree in some countries with economies in transition. Unsafe abortions threaten the lives of a large number of women, representing a grave public health problem as it is primarily the poorest and youngest who take the highest risk. Most of these deaths, health problems and injuries are preventable through improved access to adequate health-care services, including safe and effective family planning of their choice, as well as other methods of their choice for regulation of fertility which are not against, law, and the right access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy obstetric care, recognizing the right of women and men to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, as well as other methods of their choice for regulating of fertility which are not against law, and the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant. In most countries, the neglect of women’s reproductive rights severely limits their opportunities in public and private life, including opportunities for education and economic and political empowerment. The ability of women to control their won fertility forms as important basis for the enjoyment of other rights. Shared responsibility between women and men in matters related to sexual and reproductive behavior is also essential to improving women’s health.

In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning. All Government and relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations are urged to strengthen their commitment to women’s health, to deal with the health impact of unsafe abortion as a major public-health concern and to reduce the recourse to abortion through expanded and improved family planning services. Prevention of unwanted pregnancies must always be given the highest priority and every attempt should be made to eliminate the need for abortion. Women who have unwanted pregnancies should have ready access to reliable information and compassionate counselling. In all cases, women should have access to quality services and adequate health care facilities.