Despite Being Largely Illegal, Abortion in Mexico is Far More Prevalent Than in the United States

Stark Contrast Shows Restrictions Less Related to Incidence Than to Increased Risks for Women

A new national study shows that the number of abortions performed in Mexico increased by one-third between 1990 and 2006 (from 533,000 to 875,000), despite legal restrictions that virtually ban the procedure in most parts of the country. (In 2007, the federal district of Mexico City legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; the procedure remains illegal in other Mexican states.) Mexico’s 2006 abortion rate (33 per 1,000 women) was more than 40% higher than the abortion rate in the United States (19.4 per 1,000 women), where abortion is broadly legal and available.

The study, conducted by El Colegio de Mexico, the Population Council Mexico Office and the Guttmacher Institute, found that many abortions in Mexico take place under unsafe conditions, resulting in serious health consequences for women. Seventeen percent of the Mexican women who obtained abortions in 2006 were treated in public hospitals for complications. In comparison, fewer than 0.3% of abortion patients in the U.S. have complications requiring hospitalization.

"These findings confirm research from other parts of the world – that making abortion illegal does not significantly decrease its frequency, it just makes it unsafe and puts women’s lives at risk," said 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, "The contrast between U.S. and Mexican abortion rates reflects a larger disparity in awareness of contraceptive methods and access to family planning services. The best way to make abortion less necessary is to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place by increasing access to a wide range of contraceptive methods."

Lack of information on family planning and limited access to contraceptive methods may help explain why Mexican women are increasingly turning to abortion, the authors suggest. In addition, access to modern contraceptive methods in Mexico has not kept pace with women’s increasing desire to have smaller families: The average number of children per family has declined dramatically over the last 30 years, decreasing from 5.6 in 1976 to 2.2 in 2006.

To reduce the negative consequences of clandestine abortion, the study recommends broadening access to legal abortion beyond Mexico City to the rest of 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. appears in the December 2008 issue of International Family Planning Perspectives.

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Facts on induced abortion in Mexico (en Español)

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