Legal abortion is a matter of public health


On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that was issued in 1973. From now on, each state will be able to choose the laws that it wants to put in place regarding abortion. Several states have already decided to ban abortion altogether. As a physician, but also as a woman, I am stunned to see this opposition to a right that, in my opinion, is also a matter of public health.

International data

In Belgium, voluntary termination of pregnancy (VTP) has been allowed since 1990. Except in the case of a serious medical problem, the abortion must take place before the end of the 12th week after conception. So, 14 weeks from the last menstrual period (LMP).

Beyond that time frame, a VTP can be performed only when the continuation of the pregnancy endangers the health of the woman or when it is certain that the unborn child will be affected by a condition of particular gravity and recognized as incurable at the time of diagnosis. This is referred to as termination for medical reasons (TFMR).

First observation

The annual number of VTPs did not climb following legalization. For the past 20 years in Belgium, that number has remained stable, hovering around 19,000. Abortion continues to be an action – neither trivialized nor minimized – that is difficult for any woman to take, no matter what her reason.

Second observation

Over 60% of women who had an abortion were using a form of contraception. So, while the burden of contraception still rests almost exclusively on the woman, it cannot be said that those who had a VTP did not use some method of birth control.

Even more important, legal abortions have very few complications, either physical or psychological. Studies show that pregnancy itself carries a higher risk for psychopathological manifestations than a VTP. These VTPs are safe, and women quickly recover from them. The most sensitive time seems to be the period before the abortion, and it’s at this stage that most of the psychological and psychopathological manifestations accumulate. The majority of women facing a VTP experience feelings of relief, and only a minority develop psychological problems, usually when there is already a history of mental disorder. The literature shows that the levels of anxiety and depression decrease in the month following the abortion. Being denied a VTP, on the other hand, significantly increases the woman’s risk of developing a mental disorder.

Should a VTP be denied, a woman, if she determines that she doesn’t have any other choice, may then end up turning to a back-alley abortion. The methods used for this are medieval, dangerous, and may not prove successful – things like using chemicals, piercing the amniotic sac with a needle or sharp object (the famous coat hanger), eating or drinking abortifacient herbs, taking large quantities of medication, punching the stomach, falling down stairs, and engaging in intense physical exercise.

From there, these risky methods inevitably lead to numerous complications: Incomplete abortions, infections, septicemia, breakthrough bleeding, subsequent sterility, laceration of the uterine wall, or death.

Around one-third of women who undergo risky abortions develop complications, while less than half receive care.

The World Health Organization estimates that back-alley abortions represent 49% of abortions worldwide. It puts the number of illegal abortions performed each year at 20 million.

Each year, around 60,000 women worldwide die as a result of an unsafe VTP. That’s one woman every 9 minutes. And odds are that these figures are underestimated.

Making the decision to resort to a VTP is always difficult. Ideally, you should be able to discuss it with your partner, when there is one, and with your close friends and family, to have someone go with you as support, to weigh the pros and cons, and to make a choice in line with your convictions and your conscience. But first and foremost, the law must guarantee the right to be able to ask oneself this question, because guaranteeing this right is also guaranteeing the health and safety of women, and that is why this remains a public health imperative.

A version of this article first appeared on This article was translated from MediQuality.

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