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      When the law makes doors slightly open: ethical dilemmas among abortion service providers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


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          In 2005, Ethiopia changed its abortion law to curb its high maternal mortality. This has led to a considerable reduction in deaths from unsafe abortions. Abortion is now legal if the woman’s pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, if her health is endangered, if the fetus has a serious deformity, if she suffers from a physical or mental deficiency, or if she is under 18 years of age. The word of the woman, if in compliance with the law, is sufficient to qualify for an abortion. In this context, where the law makes the door slightly open, health workers become important in deciding who gets access to safe services and who doesn’t, thus creating considerable ethical dilemmas.


          The objective of this study was to explore abortion service providers’ personal experiences and reflections, perceptions of the abortion law, and ethical and dilemmas that arise. Data collection took place from March to May 2016 in Addis Ababa, at different health clinics providing abortion services. Thirty in-depth interviews and three focus group discussions were conducted with 41 abortion service providers at governmental and non-governmental clinics. Content analysis was drawn upon in the interpretation of the findings.


          When working in a context where the law has slightly opened the door for abortion seeking women, the health workers describe conflicting concerns, burdensome responsibilities, and ambiguity concerning how to interpret and implement the law. They describe efforts to balance their religious faith and values against their professional obligations and concern for women’s health and well-being. This negotiation is particularly evident in the care of women who fall outside the law’s indications. They usually handle ethical dilemmas and decision-making alone without guidance. Moreover, many health workers face a stigma from fellow colleagues not performing abortions and therefore keep their job a secret from family and friends.


          Health workers in Ethiopia experience ethical dilemmas trying to maneuver between the abortion law, their personal values, and their genuine concern for the health of women. More research is needed to further explore this.

          Electronic supplementary material

          The online version of this article (10.1186/s12910-019-0396-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

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          Most cited references17

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          Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic.

          Ending the silent pandemic of unsafe abortion is an urgent public-health and human-rights imperative. As with other more visible global-health issues, this scourge threatens women throughout the developing world. Every year, about 19-20 million abortions are done by individuals without the requisite skills, or in environments below minimum medical standards, or both. Nearly all unsafe abortions (97%) are in developing countries. An estimated 68 000 women die as a result, and millions more have complications, many permanent. Important causes of death include haemorrhage, infection, and poisoning. Legalisation of abortion on request is a necessary but insufficient step toward improving women's health; in some countries, such as India, where abortion has been legal for decades, access to competent care remains restricted because of other barriers. Access to safe abortion improves women's health, and vice versa, as documented in Romania during the regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu. The availability of modern contraception can reduce but never eliminate the need for abortion. Direct costs of treating abortion complications burden impoverished health care systems, and indirect costs also drain struggling economies. The development of manual vacuum aspiration to empty the uterus, and the use of misoprostol, an oxytocic agent, have improved the care of women. Access to safe, legal abortion is a fundamental right of women, irrespective of where they live. The underlying causes of morbidity and mortality from unsafe abortion today are not blood loss and infection but, rather, apathy and disdain toward women.
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            The Estimated Incidence of Induced Abortion in Ethiopia, 2014: Changes in the Provision of Services Since 2008

            CONTEXT In 2005, Ethiopia’s parliament amended the penal code to expand the circumstances in which abortion is legal. Although the country has expanded access to abortion and postabortion care, the last estimates of abortion incidence date from 2008. METHODS Data were collected in 2014 from a nationally representative sample of 822 facilities that provide abortion or postabortion care, and from 82 key informants knowledgeable about abortion services in Ethiopia. The Abortion Incidence Complications Methodology and the Prospective Morbidity Methodology were used to estimate the incidence of abortion in Ethiopia and assess trends since 2008. RESULTS An estimated 620,300 induced abortions were performed in Ethiopia in 2014. The annual abortion rate was 28 per 1,000 women aged 15–49, an increase from 22 per 1,000 in 2008, and was highest in urban regions (Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa and Harari). Between 2008 and 2014, the proportion of abortions occurring in facilities rose from 27% to 53%, and the number of such abortions increased substantially; nonetheless, an estimated 294,100 abortions occurred outside of health facilities in 2014. The number of women receiving treatment for complications from induced abortion nearly doubled between 2008 and 2014, from 52,600 to 103,600. Thirty-eight percent of pregnancies were unintended in 2014, a slight decline from 42% in 2008. CONCLUSIONS Although the increases in the number of women obtaining legal abortions and postabortion care are consistent with improvements in women’s access to health care, a substantial number of abortions continue to occur outside of health facilities, a reality that must be addressed.
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              Health care providers' attitudes towards termination of pregnancy: A qualitative study in South Africa

              Background Despite changes to the abortion legislation in South Africa in 1996, barriers to women accessing abortion services still exist including provider opposition to abortions and a shortage of trained and willing abortion care providers. The dearth of abortion providers undermines the availability of safe, legal abortion, and has serious implications for women's access to abortion services and health service planning. In South Africa, little is known about the personal and professional attitudes of individuals who are currently working in abortion service provision. Exploring the factors which determine health care providers' involvement or disengagement in abortion services may facilitate improvement in the planning and provision of future services. Methods Qualitative research methods were used to collect data. Thirty four in-depth interviews and one focus group discussion were conducted during 2006 and 2007 with health care providers who were involved in a range of abortion provision in the Western Cape Province, South Africa. Data were analysed using a thematic analysis approach. Results Complex patterns of service delivery were prevalent throughout many of the health care facilities, and fragmented levels of service provision operated in order to accommodate health care providers' willingness to be involved in different aspects of abortion provision. Related to this was the need expressed by many providers for dedicated, stand-alone abortion clinics thereby creating a more supportive environment for both clients and providers. Almost all providers were concerned about the numerous difficulties women faced in seeking an abortion and their general quality of care. An overriding concern was poor pre and post abortion counselling including contraceptive counselling and provision. Conclusion This is the first known qualitative study undertaken in South Africa exploring providers' attitudes towards abortion and adds to the body of information addressing the barriers to safe abortion services. In order to sustain a pool of abortion providers, programmes which both attract prospective abortion providers, and retain existing providers, needs to be developed and financial compensation for abortion care providers needs to be considered.

                Author and article information

                BMC Med Ethics
                BMC Med Ethics
                BMC Medical Ethics
                BioMed Central (London )
                5 September 2019
                5 September 2019
                : 20
                : 60
                [1 ]ISNI 0000 0004 1936 7443, GRID grid.7914.b, Department of Global Public Health and Primary Care, , University of Bergen, ; Kalfarveien 31, 5018 Bergen, Norway
                [2 ]ISNI 0000 0001 1250 5688, GRID grid.7123.7, College of Health Science, , Addis Ababa University, ; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
                © The Author(s). 2019

                Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

                : 7 June 2018
                : 25 August 2019
                Funded by: Norwegian Research Council
                Research Article
                Custom metadata
                © The Author(s) 2019

                abortion,abortion service providers,moral distress,abortion law,ethical dilemmas,empirical ethics,unsafe abortions,women seeking safe abortion,inequalities


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