New research on abortion in Mexico has found a significant increase in the rate of abortions despite legal restrictions that virtually ban the procedure in most parts of the country. Between 1990 and 2006, the abortion rate in Mexico increased by one-third—from 25 to 33 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age—according to a study released today by El Colegio de Mexico, the Population Council Mexico Office and the Guttmacher Institute. As a result, Mexico’s abortion rate is now higher than the average rate worldwide (29 per 1,000) and the average regional rate for Latin America and the Caribbean (31 per 1,000). In the same time period, the number of women obtaining abortions annually in Mexico increased by 64%—from 533,000 in 1990 to 875,000 in 2006.

With the exception of Mexico City, where abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was legalized in 2007, access to safe abortion services is highly restricted. Clandestine, illegal abortions often occur in unsafe settings with untrained providers and frequently result in serious medical consequences. In 2006, 149,676 women were treated in Mexico’s public hospitals for complications resulting from unsafe abortions.

"It is clear from these findings that making abortion illegal does not decrease its frequency, it just makes it unsafe and puts women’s lives at risk," said Dr. Fatima Juarez the study’s lead author. A professor at El Colegio de Mexico and a senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute, Dr. Juarez added that, "A recent study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute on abortion worldwide found that abortion rates are lower in developed regions, where abortion is largely legal, than in developing regions, where abortion is largely illegal."

While contraceptive use rose between 1992 and 2006—from 63% to 71% among Mexican women—the increased use of contraceptives did not keep pace with Mexican women’s growing desire to have smaller families and to time their pregnancies more carefully. Lack of information on correct family planning and limited access to contraceptive methods may help explain why Mexican women are increasingly turning to abortion.

"Access to contraceptives is not keeping up with women’s desire to have smaller families. Increased access to a wide range of contraceptive methods and heightened efforts to expand family planning awareness are critical in reducing the need for abortion," said Dr. Sandra Garcia, Population Council senior associate and country director of the Population Council’s Mexico office.

Abortion is generally safe where it is legal; however, clandestine abortion results in high rates of morbidity and mortality. To reduce the negative consequences of clandestine abortion in Mexico, the study recommends broadening access to legal abortion throughout the country; improving contraceptive services, including postabortion contraceptive counseling; increasing youth-focused initiatives and school-based comprehensive sex education programs; and expanding training in safe abortion provision.

The study "Estimates of Induced Abortion in Mexico: What’s Changed Between 1990 and 2006?" by Fatima Juarez et al. will be presented on October 7 at the "III Research Meeting on Unwanted Pregnancy and Unsafe Abortion: Public Health Challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean" in Mexico City and will be published in the December issue of International Family Planning Perspectives.

Click here for a fact sheet on abortion in Mexico. For the Spanish version, click here.