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05 Jun 2019

World Health Organization Guidelines on safe abortion: technical and policy guidance for health systems

MSI Reproductive Choices


WHO guidelines, Client experience, Public sector, Policy guidance, Medical Abortion (MA), Surgical Abortion, Converting unsafe services, Clinical guidance, Pharmacy provision, Pathways to care, Post-abortion contraception, Task sharing, Briefing, Policy reform, Human Rights, Women's rights

Viewed as the backbone for clinical safe abortion excellence around the world, the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on safe abortion care features detailed guidance on how and why health systems can implement quality safe abortion and post-abortion care.

The guidelines share technical guidance for implementers on different methods for safe abortion, including recommendations on which procedures are safest to provide at each gestational age, and which processes should be undertaken to ensure the service is high-quality.

The guidelines cover four key chapters:

  • Safe abortion care: the public health and human rights rationale
  • Clinical care for women undergoing abortion
  • Planning and managing safe abortion care
  • Legal and policy considerations.

In addition, the guidelines make the case for expanding access for safe abortion services by illustrating the public health need, while also demonstrating how the human rights of women and girls cannot be fulfilled without access to services that are safe, legal and affordable.

Citing the damage caused by unsafe abortion globally, the guidelines state:

“an estimated 22 million abortions continue to be performed unsafely each year, resulting in the death of an estimated 47,000 women and disabilities for an additional 5 million women. Almost every one of these death and disabilities could have been prevented through sexuality education, family planning, and the provision of safe, legal induced abortion and care for complications of abortion.”

More recent numbers from the Guttmacher Institute differ from these reports. Guttmacher estimate that of the 56 million induced abortions that took place each year during 2010-2014, an estimated 25 million (45%) were unsafe, with complications of unsafe abortion leading to over 22,800 deaths.

However, Guttmacher’s findings tell the same story: in countries where abortion is highly restricted, abortion rates are similar to those in more liberal settings. What differs is the maternal mortality and morbidity rates, with more women dying or suffering in restricted settings as they seek unsafe abortion services.

The WHO’s guidelines on safe abortion can be downloaded in full via the WHO website and are accessible in English, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian.

Access the WHO Guidelines on safe abortion: technical and policy guidance for health systems.

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