Unsafe abortions are a major problem in the developing world. Performed by unqualified personnel, and/or in unhygienic environments, unsafe abortions can cause life-threatening complications in girls and women.
These can include severe bleeding, infections and peritonitis (a swelling of the stomach). These complications are known to cause injury and sterility and even death: they are among the most common causes of maternal mortality worldwide. But unsafe abortions are one of the few emergencies leading to maternal death that can be anticipated and prevented.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates around 22 million unsafe abortions take place each year. Only around five million of these women are admitted to hospital.
Since 2004, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has provided access to voluntary safe abortions for women around the world, with the objective of reducing maternal mortality and suffering.
In 2014 and 2015, MSF treated over 20,000 women with abortion complications.
Hover over this image for a guide to our safe abortion programmes
Abortion around the world
The vast majority of unsafe abortions take place in developing countries.
Ninety-seven percent of abortions in Africa are unsafe, as are 95 percent in Latin America. Only six percent of abortions are unsafe in developed countries.
In many societies, there are strong social standards and prejudices linked to abortion, including a certain degree of reluctance to practice, or even talk about it.
We take these social considerations into account, reaching a balance between personal opinion and professional responsibility.
In countries with particularly strict rules on abortion, we work with international volunteers who assume the responsibility for carrying out procedures.
Abortions are completely illegal in only six countries around the world, none of which are in Africa or Asia: Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Malta and Vatican City.
Ninety-seven percent of countries allow abortions when it is necessary to save the mother’s life. Sixty percent extend this to when it is necessary for health reasons (including mental). Furthermore, over 50 percent of countries allow abortions for pregnancies caused by rape.
However, it is not uncommon for local attitudes and beliefs to generate legal action.
We balance local attitudes and abortion law by focusing on the respect and safety of the women involved.
We also endeavour to communicate clearly about the issue in areas where we work, explaining our medical mission, and our arguments and justifications for providing this type of care to women who request it.
Find out more about MSF's Abortion Policy here.