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A ground-breaking abortion study from Chile

May 9th, 2012

by Elard Koch

Before 1989 abortion was legal in Chile; after 1989 it was illegal. The author of a controversial study explains what happened to women’s health.

A groundbreaking study of abortion in Chile published last week in the scientific journal PLoS One found that illegal abortion is not associated with maternal mortality. At a time when access to legal abortion is deemed absolutely necessary for women’s health, this shatters long-standing assumptions. In this exclusive interview, Dr Elard S. Koch, the lead author of the study, defends his findings.

MercatorNet: Chile is not alone in restricting abortion. Poland, Malta and Ireland also have very restrictive rules and a low maternal mortality rates. But this has been known for years. Has no one studied it before?

Elard Koch: The Chilean study is the first in-depth analysis of a large time series, year by year, of maternal deaths and their determinants, including years of education, per capita income, total fertility rate, birth order, clean water supply, sanitation, and childbirth delivery by skilled attendants, and including simultaneously different historical policies.

In this sense, it is a unique natural experiment conducted in a developing country. Thus, a first difference between the data from Chile and data from Poland, Malta and Ireland is that, in the case of Chile, there is a rigorous analysis controlled by multiple confounders. It is not a matter of circumstantial or anecdotal evidence, but a matter of scientific data representing real, vital events whose methodology has been published for the first time in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

A second consideration relates to the degree of abortion prohibition in the different countries. Taking into account the countries in your question: in Chile, all types of abortion were prohibited in 1989. In Malta, abortion is banned in all cases but it is not prosecuted when pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. In Ireland, abortion is illegal except in cases of substantial risk to the mother, including the threat of suicide. Finally, in Poland, abortion is prohibited except in the case of danger to the mother’s health, when the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act, or when the foetus is seriously malformed.

It is worth noting that since most European countries allow elective abortion, it may be easier for women from Malta, Ireland, and Poland to travel for an abortion and this may be acting as a confounder which is difficult to control.

In contrast, due to abortion prohibitions in most Latin American countries, it is unlikely that a significant number of abortions can be performed by Chilean women abroad.

In addition, for Poland maternal mortality rates were already low at the time of passing restrictive abortion laws, possibly due to public policies similar to those promoting the decrease of maternal mortality in Chile. To test this hypothesis, analysis of maternal mortality data from this country is required, possibly in a similar manner to the one published for Chilean data.

Finally, the evolution of maternal mortality in Poland, Malta, and Ireland is yet to be analyzed in depth in the formal biomedical literature. In fact, such analysis was also lacking for Chile before our publication.

MercatorNet: Chile’s National Women’s Service (Sernam), estimates that at least 10 percent of maternal deaths are caused by complications from attempted abortions. Abortion is the fourth most common cause of maternal death in Chile. Your comment?

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