Hesperian Health Guides

Safe and Unsafe Abortion

A safe abortion is less likely to cause harm than having a baby.

Abortion is very safe when it is done:
  • by a trained and experienced health worker.
  • with the proper instruments.
  • under clean conditions. Anything that goes into the vagina and womb must be sterile (without any germs).
  • up to 3 months (12 weeks) after the last monthly bleeding.
Abortion is unsafe when it is done:
  • by someone who has not been trained to do it.
  • with the wrong instruments or medicines.
  • under unclean conditions.
  • after 3 months (12 weeks) of pregnancy, unless it is done in a health center or hospital that has special equipment.

Death from unsafe abortion

WWHD10 Ch15 Page 241-2.png Out of
getting a safe
1 will die.
WWHD10 Ch15 Page 241-1.png
But out of 100,000
women having unsafe
100 and 1000 will die.

Around the world, 46 million abortions are done every year. Women survive most of them, even if they are not legal. But unsafe abortions can cause death, or complications like infection, lasting pain, and infertility.

Women have always tried to find ways to end pregnancy when they are desperate. Stay away from the following methods. They are very dangerous.

Avoid unsafe abortion. Try to prevent unwanted pregnancy before it happens.

  • Do not put sharp objects like sticks, wire, or plastic tubing into the vagina and womb. These can tear the womb and cause dangerous bleeding and infection.
  • Do not put herbs or plants in the vagina or womb. These can burn or irritate badly, causing damage, infection, and bleeding.
  • Do not put substances such as bleach, lye, ashes, soap, or kerosene in the vagina or womb. Also, do not drink them.
  • Do not take medicines or traditional remedies in large amounts to cause abortion (either by mouth or in the vagina). For example, taking too much of the medicines for malaria (chloroquine) or to stop bleeding after childbirth (ergometrine, oxytocin) can kill you before they cause abortion.
  • Do not hit your abdomen or throw yourself down stairs. This can cause injury and bleeding inside your body, but may not cause abortion.
IMPORTANT! Never put anything inside the womb yourself or allow an untrained person to do so. This can kill you.

Access to safe abortion

When a woman is faced with an unwanted pregnancy, she should be able to get a safe and legal abortion. But laws about abortion differ from one country to another.

Legal abortion. If abortion is legal a woman can walk into a health center or hospital, pay a fee, and have a safe abortion. In countries where this happens, almost no women get sick or die from complications of abortion.

Legal abortion in some cases. In some countries an abortion is only legal for certain reasons, such as:

  • if a woman becomes pregnant from rape or incest (sex with a close family member).
  • if a doctor says pregnancy would be a danger to a woman’s health.

But abortion is often difficult to get, even for those reasons. Doctors and health workers may not be sure what the law really says. They may be unwilling to do abortions openly, or they may charge a lot of money. Women may not know if abortion is legal or available in their country.

Even if abortion is illegal, a woman can get medical help for complications from an abortion. It is difficult to tell the difference between abortion and miscarriage unless something from the abortion has been left in the womb.

Illegal abortion. If abortion is not legal, both the women who get abortions and those who perform them can be arrested. In most places this does not happen. But where abortion is against the law, more women die from unsafe abortion and unsafe pregnancies. Money that could be spent on women’s health services is spent instead on treating complications of unsafe abortion.

Never assume abortion is illegal. Try to find out about the laws in your own country. It may be easier to work around the laws than to try and change them. Even if abortion is illegal, there may be people providing safe abortions. Finding a safe abortion may mean the difference between staying alive and dying.

This page was updated:20 Feb 2020