By Belinda Munyeza.
In many parts of the world, laws on some level restrict abortions. This has affected the accuracy of abortion statistics recorded world-wide. In some countries, because of restrictions imposed by abortion laws, this limits the collection of abortion data itself. But even in countries that receive frequent data from abortion clinics on the number of women seeking the service, the change in statistics from year to year is hard to make sense of. Often, it’s hard to tell whether it is the number of abortions taking place that has increased/decreased over the years, or if it is the number of the reported cases that have changed. Analysts are therefore left to speculate why changes in abortion statistics occur in some countries.
According to an article in the New York Times (2019), in 2017, the United States saw the recording of its lowest number of abortions since the legalization of termination in 1973 . Scientists then investigated, speculated, and concluded that because of abortion laws becoming stricter in some states in America, women had opted for medical abortion through pills that they could access online, without needing to go to a clinic or see a medical health professional. This then led to the number of abortions being reported by abortion clinics to decrease. The statistic, therefore, was not because of fewer abortions taking place in the country than in previous years, but because there were changes in the type of termination women began opting for.
This complication in compiling abortion data, unfortunately, is not the only kind that arises from restrictive abortion laws. Restrictive abortion laws have led to a lot of stigma and misconceptions about termination being spread around the world, thus resulting in many abortions being kept secret, such as what they exhibit in the United States. Misinformation continues to hinder women from getting the best abortion services and also feeds into the stigma that already exists in perpetuity.
Complications of Secret Abortions
Several factors cause stigma against abortions in many countries. Some of the most widely recognized contributors to the societal attitudes towards abortion in specific countries are cultural and religious beliefs. A key example of this is in 2015, the Michigan Family Review reported that 80% of non-religious Americans were likely to identify as “pro-choice” . Meanwhile, those that fell under various religious groups (from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many others) had a much lower likelihood of identifying and were more likely to have stigmatized views against abortion. Another report of a study conducted by The Journal of Applied Social Psychology (2008) in South Africa noted a definite trend towards being pro-life among its surveyed group, 76% of whom identified as being religious .
Abortions can be traumatic, lonely, and complicated for women who come from religious communities and are afraid of being ostracized. Because of the stigma, they cannot communicate with others or access information and safe abortion services. This leads to increased rates of clandestine abortions, many of which are performed by unqualified practitioners and can lead to health risks for women. And because this experience can be lonely for a lot of these women, the trauma can have adverse effects on their mental health , as in a study conducted and reported by Mexico Reproductive Health Matters (2002).
However, it is widely overlooked how much the level of restriction the law places on abortions also influences societal attitudes towards them, regardless of religion. According to the Pew Research Center (2018), Germany is one of the least religious countries in the world , but it still has strict abortion laws which have led to some societal stigma against abortion within the country.
Where both the factor of restrictive abortion laws and a big religious population interact, the rigid attitude towards abortion is even more prevalent. A study conducted under the Studies in Family Planning Programme (2011), noted that in the Philippines, 81% of the population is Catholic and the country’s laws criminalize abortion . While not all Catholics (and people who are religious in other ways) support these restrictive abortion laws, most do. The result of this is that women in the Philippines experience a lot of stigma and the recorded rates of clandestine abortions in the country are high. 17% of pregnancies in 2008 were aborted in the country and many were performed without a medical professional, leading to 90,000 women experiencing health complications that led to hospitalization .
In order to reduce the stigma and the mental and physical complications of abortions performed in secret, the impact of abortion laws around the world needs to be taken more seriously and those laws need to be changed.
Misinformation in Abortion Statistics
Misinformation about abortions also remains a problematic factor that contributes to abortion stigma and the skewing of abortion statistics. Because abortion is still a polarizing topic and is still restricted by law in some countries, not enough resources are invested in abortion research and making sure accurate information about abortions is reaching the public. As a result, the conversation on abortion is largely controlled by those who oppose it, and this has far-reaching repercussions.
In Australia, according to an article by The Conversation (2013), nobody accurately knows how many abortions take place in Australia and different sources report different statistics . The same issue of misrepresentation of abortion statistics is prevalent in the United States , according to Deseret News (2017). The methods of recording abortion data vary among institutions and some are not consistent, leading to nation-wide confusion about abortion rates in the country.
This uncertainty makes it difficult to track how accessible abortion is relative to the number of women who seek it. It also makes it difficult to manage the outcomes of the abortions being performed and to make sure complications are being avoided. This awards room and opportunity to those who deliberately want to misinform in order to negatively skew public perceptions of abortions. This is dangerous, and it can perpetuate the public stigma that prevents women from being able to access the abortion resources they require.
On a global level, there needs to be an improvement in the way abortions are monitored and reported on, as this is key to getting the public more accurately informed about abortions. But restrictive abortion laws need to change globally, as they are at the epicenter of the harmful effects of misinformation and the complications abortion seeker’s face.
 Beasley, Eric. (2016). The Accuracy of Lay Estimates of Abortion Rates and the Demographic, Attitudinal, and Behavioral Sources of Variation in these Estimates. Michigan Family Review. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mfr/4919087.0019.102/–accuracy-of-lay-estimates-of-abortion-rates?rgn=main;view=fulltext
 Patel, C.J. and Myeni, M.C. (2008), Attitudes Toward Abortion in a Sample of South African Female University Students. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38: 736-750. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2007.00324.x
 Ana Amuchástegui Herrera & Marta Rivas Zivy (2002) Clandestine Abortion in Mexico: A Question of Mental as Well as Physical Health, Reproductive Health Matters, 10:19, 95-102, DOI: 10.1016/S0968-8080(02)00019-8h https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1016/S0968-8080%2802%2900019-8
 Gipson, J. D., Hirz, A. E., & Avila, J. L. (2011). Perceptions and practices of illegal abortion among urban young adults in the Philippines: a qualitative study. Studies in family planning, 42(4), 261–272. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1728-4465.2011.00289.x