Despite restrictive laws, Latin America has the world’s largest unsafe abortion rate

Latin America and the Caribbean have some of the most restrictive laws against abortion in the world, but the region holds the world’s largest rate of unsafe abortions.

According to estimates from the World Health Organization, last published in 2012, 31 in every 1,000 women aged between 15-44 have had an unsafe abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean. The large number of procedures, often undertaken with no assistance of trained professionals and without post-abortion care, is responsible for 13% of all maternal deaths in the region.

When looking at South America alone, 36 in every 1,000 women aged between 15-44 have had an unsafe procedure. The number is more than double the global rate of 14 cases for every 1,000 women.

Unsafe abortion rate and abortion rights

Despite the figures, the majority of countries in the region will only allow abortion in the most extreme circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped or to save a mother’s life. Such restrictive abortion laws are in place in both Brazil and Argentina.

Out of the 34 countries in the region, only Cuba, Mexico, Guyana and Uruguay allow abortion under any circumstance.

Restrictive laws and higher cases of unsafe abortions are strongly linked, according to a study published by WHO and the Guttmacher, a U.S-based institute specialized in sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide.

South America's unsafe abortion rate

Africa, abortion and maternal deaths

Africa has the world’s largest percentage of maternal deaths due to unsafe abortion and is one of the regions where laws are the most restrictive.

Three out of five of the continent’s countries only allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy in strict circumstances. Nations such as Congo, Mali and Somalia only allow it to save a woman’s life.

In Eastern Africa, home of countries such as Kenya and Burundi, 18% of all maternal deaths were caused by the unsafe termination of pregnancy, the world’s largest rate.

“Legal restrictions do not stop abortion; mainly, they drive it underground. Too many women are maimed or killed each year because they lack access to legal, safe abortion services,” said Susan Cohen, vice president for public policy at US-based Guttmacher Institute.

“Unrestrictive abortion laws do not predict a high incidence of abortion, and by the same token, highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with low abortion incidence,” noted Gilda Sedgh, a research scientist responsible for WHO’s study on worldwide abortion trends.

Sedgh added: “In Africa, where abortion is highly restricted by law in nearly all countries, there are 650 deaths for every 100,000 procedures, compared with fewer than 10 per 100,000 procedures in developed regions.”  

Liberal laws are not associated with an increase in abortions as highly restrictive measures are not linked with a reduction in procedures. Between 1995 and 2008, abortion rate dropped most where laws are liberal, while it decreased least where abortion is mostly illegal.

Click on the map below for an interactive version:

Abortion rights around the world

In Europe, where the greater majority of countries have liberal laws for women seeking to end a pregnancy, the abortion rate per 1,000 women dropped by 44%. Africa saw the lowest drop of all regions, with a 12% fall.     

Abortion rate percentual change

Cohen, from the Guttmacher Institute, notes: “The evidence makes clear that if a woman is determined to avoid a birth, she will resort to an abortion if that is her only option, regardless of the law. All too often this means putting her own life at risk.

“Until unsafe abortion is embraced as a public health issue needing urgent attention, women, their families and communities will continue to suffer the consequences.”


Mapped: The #BooDilma on Twitter


For those outside Brazil, it went probably unnoticed the flood of messages on Twitter last night with the hashtag #vaiadilma (Boo Dilma, in English).

Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff (PT, Workers’ Party) went to national television on Sunday (8) for a 15-minutes pronouncement, where she asked Brazilians for patience with the austerity measures adopted by the government and the weak economy.

The reaction was not all positive, especially in some regions of the country. In protest, residents of cities such as São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, Vila Velha and Brasília shouted from their balconies and bang pots and pans.

What has been called “balcony protest” made its way to Twitter: last night, #VaiaDilma was in the trending topics in Brazil and amongst the most talked topics on Twitter worldwide.

Some have argued that the reactions were isolated and that they were concentrated in posh neighborhoods of rich capitals.

By analyzing* the tweets posted over the past days with the hashtags #vaiaDilma, #ForaPT (Get out PT) and ForaDilma (Get out Dilma), it is possible to see concentration, specially in the Southeast of the country – but not isolation.

(If you want to see the full map, click here.)


The volume of messages are higher in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, with the predominance of São Paulo city. The more you zoom in the map, the more you see that São Paulo have concentrated the posts. If you want to zoom in in the map, click here.

What’s next?

The atmosphere of animosity may be concentrated, but it is growing. Next Sunday (15) a march is expected from those who support an impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, despite the unlikeliness of the procedure.

An event on Facebook, called “Vemprarua” (Come to the Streets), run by an unknown institution, has 272,545 members at the moment. The community posts videos and convocations asking Brazilians to march on the 15th.

It is important to put numbers in perspective: Brazil is a massive country, with more than 200 million people. The universe of 272,545 members does not represent a significant amount of the population.

However, the narrow margin of victory Dilma had just five months ago in the presidential elections might play a role.

Some influential voices, as journalist Bruno Torturra, called attention to the insensitiveness of Dilma: appearing on television one week before the march without addressing hot topics, as corruption scandals that members of the government coalition are involved into, was not the best political decision.

Dilma’s opponent in the last election, Eduardo Jorge (Partido Verde, Green Party) said Dilma’s speech in national TV was actually the convocation for the 15th March:

If the president’s speech was a “shoot in the foot”, we are yet to see.

*Sample: 25,000 tweets collected, 800 posts visualized.