An estimated 19 million unsafe abortions occur worldwide each year, resulting in the deaths of about 70,000 women. Legalization of abortion is a necessary but insufficient step toward improving women's health. Without skilled providers, adequate facilities and easy access, the promise of safe, legal abortion will remain unfulfilled, as in India and Zambia. Both suction curettage and pharmacological abortion are safe methods in early pregnancy; sharp curettage is inferior and should be abandoned. For later abortions, either dilation and evacuation or labour induction are appropriate. Hysterotomy should not be used. Timely and appropriate management of complications can reduce morbidity and prevent mortality. Treatment delays are dangerous, regardless of their origin. Misoprostol may reduce the risks of unsafe abortion by providing a safer alternative to traditional clandestine abortion methods. While the debate over abortion will continue, the public health record is settled: safe, legal, accessible abortion improves health.