Key facts about maternal and infant health in developing countries

February 19, 2010

  • 19-20 million women in developing countries resort to unsafe (usually illegal) abortions every year.  98% of unsafe abortions occur in countries with restrictive abortion laws (generally archaic laws passed by former colonial powers). There are 42 million abortions a year in total.
  • 68,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion. 8 million women experience complications serious enough to require treatment. Of those, 3 million never receive medical treatment.
  • Thirteen percent of all pregnancy-related deaths are due to unsafe abortion.
  • Unsafe abortion is the only cause of maternal mortality that is entirely preventable.
  • The highest abortion rates in the world are generally in developing countries with strict criminal laws against abortion. Laws don’t stop abortion; they only drive it underground and make it dangerous. (Abortion rates are lower and have been declining in countries where it is legal and widely available.)
  • 220,000 children worldwide lose their mothers every year from abortion-related deaths. (Most women in the developing world who have abortions are married with children.)
  • When a pregnant woman dies from unsafe abortion, her existing children are 10 times more likely to die within the next two years.
  • 215 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for modern contraceptives (meaning they want to avoid a pregnancy but are using an ineffective family planning method or no method).
  • If all women who wanted contraception received it, more than 53 million unintended pregnancies would be averted, preventing 25 million abortions, 150,000 maternal deaths, and 640,000 newborn deaths. (Childbirth is dangerous in many developing countries – for example, the lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 17 in West and Central Africa, and 1 in 8000 in industrialized countries.)
  • Additional consequences of unsafe abortion include loss of productivity, economic burden on public health systems, stigma, and long-term health problems like infertility.
  • The costs of treating the 5 million women who are hospitalized every year after unsafe abortion is at least $460 million. In Africa, complications of abortion account for 30 to 50 percent of maternal deaths, and hospitals’ maternity wards and budgets are often largely diverted to treating these complications.
  • Safe legal abortion saves women’s lives. Without exception, every country that has legalized abortion has seen dramatic decreases in deaths and serious complications due to unsafe abortion. In western industrialized countries, death from unsafe abortion has been virtually eliminated.


Guttmacher Institute, October 2009. Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Guttmacher Institute. 2009. Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Family Planning and Maternal and Newborn Health.  

World Health Organization, Department of Reproductive Health and Research. Unsafe abortion: global and regional estimates of incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2003, Fifth edition. 2007. 

UNICEF. Goal: Improve maternal health. 

UNICEF. State of the World’s Children (SOWC) – Key Statistics.

Khama O. Rogo, John Oucho, and Philip Mwalali. 2006. Maternal Mortality. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). 

Susan A. Cohen. Fall 2009. Guttmacher Policy Review.Facts and Consequences: Legality, Incidence and Safety of Abortion Worldwide. Vol.12, No.4.

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