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WHO Issues New Abortion Guidelines, Recommends Access To Abortion Pills

The new WHO guideline, for the first time, includes recommendations for telemedicine that helped support access to abortion and family planning services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cover of the World Health Organization's "Abortion Care Guideline" published 2022.

KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 – The World Health Organization (WHO) has released new guidelines on abortion care to help prevent over 25 million annual unsafe abortions globally.

The new WHO guideline includes recommendations on simple primary care level interventions to improve the quality of abortion care for women and girls, including ensuring access to medical abortion pills, task sharing by a wider range of health workers, and making accurate information on care available to all who need it.

“Being able to obtain safe abortion is a crucial part of health care,” said Craig Lissner, acting Director for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research at WHO, in a statement on March 9. 

“Nearly every death and injury that results from unsafe abortion is entirely preventable. That’s why we recommend women and girls can access abortion and family planning services when they need them.”

WHO’s new guideline also, for the first time, includes recommendations on telemedicine, where appropriate, that helped support access to abortion and family planning services during the Covid-19 pandemic that saw movement restrictions across countries.

The guideline recommends removing medically unnecessary policy barriers to safe abortion, such as criminalisation, mandatory waiting times, the requirement that approval must be given by other people (such as partners or family members) or institutions, and limits on when during pregnancy an abortion can take place. 

WHO noted that about 20 countries provide no legal grounds for abortion, while more than three in four nations impose legal penalties for abortion, including lengthy prison sentences or heavy fines for people who have or assist with the procedure.

“It’s vital that an abortion is safe in medical terms,” said Dr Bela Ganatra, head of WHO’s Prevention of Unsafe Abortion Unit. 

“But that’s not enough on its own. As with any other health services, abortion care needs to respect the decisions and needs of women and girls, ensuring that they are treated with dignity and without stigma or judgement. No one should be exposed to abuse or harms like being reported to the police or put in jail because they have sought or provided abortion care.” 

The global health body pointed out that restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of abortions but instead, is more likely to drive women and girls towards unsafe procedures.

In countries where abortion is most restricted, only one in four abortions are safe, compared to nearly nine in 10 in countries where the procedure is broadly legal. 

Following the launch of the guidelines, WHO said it would support interested countries to implement these new guidelines and strengthen national policies and programmes related to contraception, family planning and abortion services, helping them provide the highest standard of care for women and girls.

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