A new study from the Guttmacher Institute confirms that upper-class women are three times more likely to be able to leverage their resources to get a safe abortion when they need one, while less economically advantaged women are often forced to resort to unsafe abortion procedures. Unsafe abortions in the developing world contribute to 47,000 preventable deaths each year, and those fatalities are likely concentrated among young, poor, and single women around the globe.
Guttmacher analyzed health data in Ghana, which actually has a fairly progressive abortion law for the region — the procedure is legal, although only “medical practitioners” can perform it. But the law itself hasn’t changed the reality that women in Ghana face, particularly since most people in the country don’t even realize that most abortion services are now legal. The societal stigma surrounding abortion prevents many women from discussing their reproductive options with their families or friends, and there’s also a serious shortage of abortion doctors in the country — contributing to the unfortunate fact that unsafe abortions are the leading cause of maternal death and injury in Ghana.
And the study found that the women who lack economic resources — particularly the financial independence from their families or the additional monetary support from a partner — are much more likely to resort to unsafe abortion procedures. “As is too often the case, access to quality health services is being determined by circumstances other than need, with the less well-off experiencing the worse outcomes,” Joana Nerquaye-Tetteh, a reproductive health expert working with the Guttmacher Institute in Ghana, explained.
The United States has some unfortunate parallels to Ghana. Abortion access in America has long been inextricably linked to issues of race and class. Restricting access to legal abortion services has an outsized impact on low-income women — who are more likely to fall deeper into poverty if they are denied the ability to make their own reproductive choices.
And, like Ghana, abortion is legal in name only in some areas of this country. Despite the fact that Roe v. Wade has guaranteed women the right to abortion services for the past 40 years, state-level abortion restrictions have slowly chipped away at reproductive freedom across the U.S., particularly in deeply conservative regions. By imposing increasing numbers of barriers for women seeking abortions, lawmakers in the United States are exacerbating the racial and socioeconomic divides that have always stratified abortion access. And as the case study in Ghana proves, that’s going to continue to hurt young, poor, and single women most of all.