Why Did Women Risk Having Unsafe Abortions in the Past?

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Abortion in the UK is now a very safe procedure that is actually less risky than having a baby. However, this wasn’t always the case.

Unsafe Abortions in the Past

Risks of Abortion in the Past

Abortions have been performed in various ways for thousands of years, often using ineffective and unsafe methods that risked:

  • Damage to the womb or cervix when instruments were inserted into the vagina
  • Blood loss after the abortion
  • Poisoning by toxic substances used to try to induce the abortion
  • Infection, especially before proper hygiene standards were understood or antibiotics developed that could treat the infection

Abortion continued to be very risky even into the 20th century as women were still unable to access care legally. In the 1920s/30s, around 15% of all maternal deaths were due to unsafe abortions. It was such a significant problem that it inspired movements to legalise abortion.

Why Did Women Take These Risks?

Women in the past attempted abortion to escape the very high risks of pregnancy and childbirth or the serious social and financial repercussions of having a child, especially if they were unmarried. Women had far fewer opportunities to work in the past and having a child could make it impossible to get a job, even when married or widowed. It could therefore be impossible for a woman to support a child. Single women or those who were believed to have committed adultery were also at risk of being socially ostracised or punished if they became pregnant. Many women were willing to take the risk of an unsafe abortion over those associated with giving birth.

Illegal and Unsafe Abortions Today

While women in the UK now have access to safe and legal abortions, this isn’t the case for everyone. In some parts of the world access to abortion is very restricted or completely blocked. Around half of all the abortions that take place in the world today are still performed without medical supervision. Many of these abortions pose a significant risk of the health and life of the mother.

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