Background

In Malawi, abortion is legal only if performed to save a woman's life; other attempts to procure an abortion are punishable by 7—14 years imprisonment. Most induced abortions in Malawi are performed under unsafe conditions, contributing to Malawi's high maternal mortality ratio. Malawians are currently debating whether to provide additional exceptions under which an abortion may be legally obtained. An estimated 67,300 induced abortions occurred in Malawi in 2009 (equivalent to 23 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15—44), but changes since 2009, including dramatic increases in contraceptive prevalence, may have impacted abortion rates.

Methods

We conducted a nationally representative survey of health facilities to estimate the number of cases of post-abortion care, as well as a survey of knowledgeable informants to estimate the probability of needing and obtaining post-abortion care following induced abortion. These data were combined with national population and fertility data to determine current estimates of induced abortion and unintended pregnancy in Malawi using the Abortion Incidence Complications Methodology.
 

Results

We estimate that approximately 141,044 (95% CI: 121,161—160,928) induced abortions occurred in Malawi in 2015, translating to a national rate of 38 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15—49 (95% CI: 32 to 43); which varied by geographical zone (range: 28—61). We estimate that 53% of pregnancies in Malawi are unintended, and that 30% of unintended pregnancies
end in abortion. Given the challenges of estimating induced abortion, and the assumptions required for calculation, results should be viewed as approximate estimates, rather than exact measures.

Conclusions

The estimated abortion rate in 2015 is higher than in 2009 (potentially due to methodological differences), but similar to recent estimates from nearby countries including Tanzania (36), Uganda (39), and regional estimates in Eastern and Southern Africa (34—35). Over half of pregnancies in Malawi are unintended. Our findings should inform ongoing efforts to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality and to improve public health in Malawi.

Acknowledgment

This study was made possible by grants from the UK Government, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The findings and conclusions contained in the study do not necessarily reflect the positions and policies of the donors.