New WHO guidelines on abortion – a landmark tool to prevent unsafe abortion

abortion care guidelines

FIGO welcomes, endorses and commits action to implement the new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on abortion that were released today.

Unsafe abortion is a chronic public health problem and human rights issue. Over 25 million unsafe abortions occur each year, which result in an almost entirely preventable 39,000 deaths and millions of women being hospitalised with complications. The impact is felt mostly acutely in low- and middle-income countries in Africa and Asia and among those living in the most vulnerable situations.

FIGO has been working to prevent unsafe abortion and improve access to safe abortion for almost two decades: through in-country projects, our divisions and committees, and work with partners on international advocacy and communications initiatives. We have provided clinical evidence, amplified the voices of health care professionals who deal with this reality every day, defended rights when they have been violated, and provided guidance on how we can move forwards.

The WHO's new guidelines – which provide recommendations spanning clinical practice, health service delivery, and legal and policy interventions to support quality abortion care – provide a landmark tool to enable our member societies, OBGYNs and nations to move collectively towards meeting the needs of women and girls and eliminating unsafe abortion.

The guidelines highlight how important it is to remove medically unnecessary policy barriers to safe abortion, such as criminalisation. This echoes the position if FIGO, as set out in our recently statementFIGO calls for the total decriminalisation of abortion.

Dr Teresa Bombas, Chair of FIGO’s Committee on Safe Abortion, says, 

We know that criminalising abortion does not reduce the number of abortions. We also know that legalising abortion does not increase the number of abortions, but instead changes them from unsafe to safe. We hope that these tools together can be used by partners everywhere to remove barriers to safe abortion and support health care professionals do their job without fear of repercussions.

The WHO guidelines, based on the latest scientific evidence, emphasise simple primary-care-level interventions including task sharing, access to medical abortion pills, and availability of accurate information. As time-sensitive essential health care, FIGO has called for the removal of barriers to access and upholds the stance that access to safe abortion is an integral part of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), gender equality and reproductive justice – we are pleased to see these elements as part of WHO’s guidelines.

Recommendations also highlight the use of telemedicine models where appropriate, which have been essential for providing access throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2021, FIGO reiterated our endorsement of the permanent adoption of telemedicine abortion services.

Placing abortion in a rights-based framework is the critical element, as is WHO’s mention of ‘quality care,’ meaning that care must be effective (delivered by health workers with the right skills, resources and information), safe, accessible, timely and respectful of women and girls’ needs and rights. We will continue to work in partnership with our national member societies to find the best ways to operationalise these important tenets.

– Jessica Morris, Senior Project Manager of the FIGO Advocating for Safe Abortion Project

Read the WHO's abortion care guidelines.

Read FIGO's statements on safe abortion.