Aiming to gain a better understanding of the situation of abortion in Africa and Latin America, a research team jointly involving Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement and "El Colegio de Mexico" reviewed the scientific literature published from the early 1990s up to the present. Their conclusion is that women from the deprived social classes have to resort to unsafe illegal abortions, contrary to those from better-off sections of society, making abortion an equality issue that should be addressed.
What scientific literature could they have studied? Data in the area of abortion is still highly fragmented. Women face heavy legal and social penalties if they decide to have an abortion that is not by medical necessity. For Latin America, apart from a study run in urban areas of Colombia, wide-ranging surveys based on representative samples of the population are lacking.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is no help because when it comes to issues they advocate, such as abortion on demand, they just make numbers up, like saying that in Latin America and the Caribbean there is one abortion for every three live births. In Africa, they say there is one abortion for seven live births and 99% of those are illegal.
But none of the 53 countries on the African continent forbid abortion so the 99% illegal number would seem to be a way to make the abortion number higher, and therefore more important, without needing any actual documentation. That's not very good science.
Since the IRD study could not rely on accurate numbers they looked at legislation on abortion rights over the last 15 years which, in predominantly Catholic countries like Latin America, is restrictive. Africa is primarily Catholic and Muslim and culturally restrictive also. Culture very often translates into law.
The IRD seems to have an issue with a lack of abortion on demand. How many actual illegal abortions and complications occur is unknown so they can be exaggerated by abortion advocacy groups and minimized by religious groups with equal credibility. The IRD shows concern that only Cap Verde, Tunisia and South Africa permit abortion on the woman's demand, though all countries allow it for medical reasons, similar to 17 of 41 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, the Dutch part of Saint Martin, Nicaragua, abortion is prohibited and feminist groups and a civil organization of Catholic women in these countries ("Catholics for the right to decide") are campaigning for decriminalization of abortion. But these movements are confronted with the conservative positions of the institutions, associations and even health care professionals who oppose pro-abortion legislation for ethical or religious reasons.
The researchers also sought to define better the profile of women in those areas who resort to abortion. They say that teenage girls are the most affected because access to contraception is socially complicated for them, making abortion most frequent among them.
Yet scientific data on this question for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are still extremely patchy. Better knowledge of the situation is essential for defining suitable health policies and making the case for changes to abortion legislation.
From the public health point of view, unsafe abortion practices accentuate maternal mortality but limited access to abortion and non respect of reproductive rights also make it a question of social injustice, the report concludes.