UN official urges world to tackle unsafe abortions

April 8, 2014 by Edith M. Lederer

The head of the U.N. population agency said Monday that the world must address why 8.7 million young women aged 15 to 24 resort to unsafe abortions each year.

Babatunde Osotimehin also called on governments to explore why more than 200 million women in developing countries who want to prevent pregnancies don't have access to contraception. And he said countries must answer why one in three girls in developing countries are married before they turn 18, despite near universal commitment to ending child marriages.

He spoke at the opening session of a week-long meeting of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development to review progress and tackle new challenges since the landmark U.N. population conference in Cairo in 1994.

The Cairo conference changed the U.N. Population Fund's focus from numerical targets to promoting choices for individual women and men, and supporting economic development and education for girls. Underlying the shift was research showing that educated women have smaller families.

The conference broke the taboo on discussing sexuality, adolescent sexual behavior and the real concerns of women and families.

At the heart of the action plan that 179 countries adopted in Cairo is a demand for equality of women through education, access to modern birth control, and a recognition that women have the right to control their reproductive and sexual health and choose if and when to become pregnant. The only reservation added at the conference was that this should be in accordance with national laws, religion and culture.

Osotimehin told the opening session that in the 20 years since Cairo there have been "great gains" in reducing poverty, improving girls' education, reducing maternal and child mortality, and providing access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, and protecting reproductive rights.

But he said "discriminatory laws, practices and attitudes continue to keep women and young people, particularly adolescent girls, from accessing sexual and reproductive health services."

Osotemehin, the Population Fund's executive director, said this means it's okay for girls to marry, have sex and have children—but they're not old enough to have access to contraception and , or to control their own bodies.

"This simply does not make sense," he said. "And we cannot shy away from these issues."

Osotemehin noted that up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under the age of 16, and that gender-based violence in schools is "a significant factor in girls' drop-out rates."

He urged the conference to ensure that an 11-year-old girl stays in school, is protected from violence and early marriage, has access to sex education so she can protect herself from motherhood in childhood, and is equipped with choices and opportunities for her future that will contribute to society.

Nafis Sadik, who was executive director of the Population Fund in 1994, told the commission that unsafe abortions kill an estimated 47,000 women every year and injures many more—and the problem has grown in the past 20 years.

"I believe that the conditions exist today for a renewed, extensive and enlightened discussion about reducing unsafe and changing its legal status," she said. "It has to be done, of course, in and by each country."

Sadik stressed that contraception is not universal or perfect, that human beings are fallible, that pregnancy complications can make abortion necessary, and that "increases in gender-based violence, and especially rape, increases the need for intervention."

Fred Sai, a Ghanaian physician who chaired the committee that negotiated the Cairo action plan, asked: "What kind of religion will say that if you've been ... raped during war" you should carry through with a pregnancy. He answered that today while many countries give victims of crime support, "the victims of rape are crying out."

Sadik said people often cite "cultural values" for "abusive practices" such as child marriage, sexual assault in the home or female genital mutilation.

These are often "the means by which one group keeps another in subjugation," Sadik said to applause, and she urged the commission to "call prejudice and discrimination by their proper name."

She also urged men in leadership positions to speak out on sensitive subjects like abortion, so-called honor killings, girls' education, and a woman's right to make decisions about her sexuality and reproductive health and rights.

Explore further: UN: Rich countries advance women, poorest don't

Related Stories

UN: Rich countries advance women, poorest don't

February 13, 2014
Richer countries have made advances toward equality for women and provided greater access to sexual and reproductive health care over the past 20 years—but the poorest countries have made little progress, according to a ...

Amnesty tells state to stop criminalising sex lives

March 6, 2014
Amnesty International on Thursday urged governments to stop criminalising people's sex lives and instead protect their right to control their own bodies.

UN: 7.3 million teen births in developing world

October 30, 2013
Recent research has suggested that teen pregnancies in the developing world are declining, but more than 7 million girls under the age of 18 are still giving birth each year and suffering drastic consequences, a U.N. report ...

Contraception could save world $5.7 bn, says UN report

November 14, 2012
The world economy would be boosted by billions of dollars if all women had access to contraception, the United Nations said on Wednesday in its annual State of World Population report.

Child marriages: 39,000 every day

March 7, 2013
Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Recommended for you

Study shows a significant ongoing decline in sperm counts of Western men

July 25, 2017
In the first systematic review and meta-analysis of trends in sperm count, researchers from the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai ...

Women exposed to smoke while in womb more likely to miscarry

July 13, 2017
Women exposed to cigarette smoke while in their mothers' wombs are more likely to experience miscarriage as adults, according to new research from the University of Aberdeen.

Lack of a hormone in pregnant mice linked to preeclampsia

June 30, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers from Singapore, the Netherlands and Turkey has isolated a hormone in pregnant mice that appears to be associated with preeclampsia—a pregnancy-related condition characterized by ...

Aspirin reduces risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women

June 28, 2017
Taking a low-dose aspirin before bed can reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia, which can cause premature birth and, in extreme cases, maternal and foetal death.

The biology of uterine fluid: How it informs the fetus of mom's world

June 22, 2017
A developing fetus bathes in a mixture of cellular secretions and proteins unique to its mother's uterus. Before fertilization, the pH of uterine fluid helps create a conducive environment for sperm migration, and afterward, ...

New clues in puzzle over pre-eclampsia and cholesterol regulation

June 21, 2017
Scientists studying a mystery link between the dangerous pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia and an increased risk of heart disease in later life for both mother and child have uncovered important new clues.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.