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The Impact of Illegal Abortion

A Fact Sheet from the Abortion Access Project

Historically, women around the world have tried to end their unintended pregnancies whether abortion is legal or not, often jeopardizing their safety and health by self-inducing or seeking a dangerous illegal procedure.  While there is very little relationship between abortion legality and abortion incidence, there is a strong correlation between abortion legality and abortion safety.   

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) defines unsafe abortion as a procedure for terminating unwanted pregnancy either by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment lacking the minimal medical standards or both.1

  • Estimates of the annual number of illegal abortions in the United States during the1950s  and 1960s range from 200,000 to 1.2 million.2

  • Of the 46 million abortions occurring worldwide each year, 20 million take place in countries where abortion is prohibited by law.3

  • Prior to Roe v. Wade, as many as 5,000 American women died annually as a direct result of unsafe abortions.4 Today, abortion is one of the most commonly performed clinical procedures in the United States, and the current death rate from abortion at all stages of gestations is 0.6 per 100,000 procedures.  This is 11 times safer than carrying a pregnancy to term and nearly twice as safe as a penicillin injection.2

  • According to the WHO, in countries where abortion remains unsafe it is a leading cause of maternal mortality,1 accounting for 78,000 of the 600,000 annual pregnancy-related deaths worldwide.3

  • Approximately 219 women die worldwide each day from an unsafe abortion.5

  • Six months after abortion was legalized in Guyana in 1995, admissions for septic and incomplete abortion dropped by 41%. Previously, septic abortion had been the third largest, and incomplete abortion the eighth largest, cause of admissions to the country's public hospitals.6  One year after Romania legalized abortion in 1990, its abortion-related mortality rate fell from 142 to 47 deaths per 100,000 live births.7  These are examples of the positive impact legalizing abortion has on women's health.

  • Legalization of abortion allows women to obtain timely abortions thereby reducing the risk of complications. In 1970, one in four abortions, in the United States, took place after 13 weeks gestation.8 Today, 88% of all abortions in the U.S. take place before the end of the first trimester.


1 "International Policy and Practice: Responding to Unsafe Abortion," Ipas, 2003.
2 "Medical and Social Health Benefits Since Abortion was made Legal in the U.S." Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2002.
3 "Facts in Brief: Induced Abortion Worldwide, 2003," Alan Guttmacher Institute.
4 "The Safety of Legal Abortion and the Hazards of Illegal Abortion," NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, 2003. 
5 "Sharing Responsibility: Women, Society, and Abortion Worldwide," Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999.
6 "Envisioning Life Without Roe: Lessons Without Borders," Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2003.  
7  "Abortion in Context: United States and Worldwide," Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999.
8  "The Public Health Impact of Legal Abortion: 30 Years Later," Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 35:1, January/February 2003.

Written by: The Abortion Access Project
Last revised: June 2003

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