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      Global Abortion Policies Database: a new approach to strengthening knowledge on laws, policies, and human rights standards


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          The Global Abortion Policies Database (GAPD), launched in June 2017, provides a verifiable, comprehensive, nuanced approach to information and data sources on abortion law and policy. Abortion laws, policies, and guidelines from United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) Member States are juxtaposed to information and recommendations from WHO safe abortion guidance, national sexual and reproductive health indicators, and relevant UN human rights bodies’ concluding observations to countries.

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          The Global Abortion Policies Database aims to increase transparency of information and accountability of states for the protection of individuals’ health and human rights. The database presents current information on abortion laws and policies that goes beyond categories of lawful abortion to include information on additional access requirements, service provision, conscientious objection, and penalties. Wide-ranging variations among countries’ legal requirements and criminal penalties raise questions about the evidentiary and human rights basis for abortion laws and policies. Source documents found in the database highlight that in many jurisdictions legal and policy guidance is either non-existent, not clear, or conflicting. By juxtaposing a jurisdiction’s abortion laws and policies to relevant WHO guidance and by facilitating comparisons of countries’ sexual and reproductive health indicators, the database can enable deep policy analysis of states’ obligations to meet the health needs and human rights of individuals in the context of abortion. Policy analysis in the context of authoritative guidance on human rights standards can enable health and rights advocates to hold governments accountable for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling individuals’ human rights.


          The GAPD is a comprehensive tool that can be used to strengthen knowledge, inform law and policy research to generate evidence on the impact of laws and policies in practice, and facilitate greater awareness of the many challenges to creating enabling policy environments for safe abortion.

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          A global database of abortion laws, policies, health standards and guidelines

          In June 2017 the United Nations Development Programme/United Nations Population Fund/United Nations Children’s Fund/World Health Organization (WHO)/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP) in collaboration with the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) launched a new, open-access Global Abortion Policies Database (available at two different web interfaces: http://www.srhr.org/abortion-policies; esa.un.org/gapp). The online database contains comprehensive information on the abortion laws, policies, health standards and guidelines for WHO and United Nations (UN) Member States. It is intended for use by policy-makers, human rights bodies, nongovernmental organizations, public health researchers and civil society. The database is designed to further strengthen global and national efforts to eliminate unsafe abortion by facilitating comparative and country-specific analyses of abortion laws and policies, placing them in the context of information and recommendations from WHO technical and policy guidance on safe abortion. 1 , 2 The main objectives of the database are to promote greater transparency of abortion laws and policies and State accountability for the protection of women and girls’ health and human rights. Backdrop to abortion policies The association between restrictive abortion laws and unsafe abortion has been well documented. 3 , 4 According to an analysis by UN DESA, the average rate of unsafe abortion is estimated to be more than four times higher in countries with more restrictive abortion laws than in countries with less restrictive laws. 5 Restrictive abortion laws are also associated with higher levels of maternal mortality. The average maternal mortality ratio is three times higher in countries with more restrictive abortion laws (223 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births) compared to countries with less restrictive laws (77 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births). 5 Restrictive legal grounds for abortion are only one of many policy barriers that affect women and girls’ access to safe abortion. Other barriers include policies that limit provision of abortion care to obstetricians and gynaecologists working at high-level care facilities; conscientious objection by health-care providers; requirements for third-party authorization(s); unnecessary medical tests; mandatory counselling; and mandatory waiting periods. 1 Restrictive abortion laws and policies create risks to women and girls’ health by deterring them from seeking care and hindering providers from delivering services within the formal health system. 1 Such laws and policies cause delays for women receiving care by creating complex and burdensome administrative procedures, increasing the costs of safe abortion services and limiting the availability of services and their equitable sociogeographic distribution. 1 Such delays can also result in pregnancy advancing beyond legally allowed gestational limits, thus making women ineligible to receive safe services. 1 Restrictions on access to safe abortion create inequalities both within and between countries, making access to safe abortion a privilege of the rich and leaving poor women little choice but to resort to illegal and usually unsafe practices and providers. 1 Consensus to eliminate unsafe abortion WHO first recognized unsafe abortion as a serious public health problem in 1967. 6 The problem was reaffirmed in the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, which underscored the need for States to address the health consequences of unsafe abortion and to provide safe abortion where it is not against the law. 7 Recognizing the public health challenge posed by unsafe abortion, WHO produced technical and policy guidance on safe abortion for health systems in 2003. 8 A year later, prevention of unsafe abortion was recognized as a core component of the WHO Reproductive health strategy to accelerate progress towards the attainment of international development goals and targets. 9 The strategy is grounded in international human rights treaties and global consensus declarations, such as the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995). In 2004, the WHO Member States endorsed the strategy. 9 , 10 The WHO Safe abortion: technical and policy guidance for health systems was updated in 2012 and included a compilation of international human rights bodies’ observations on abortion laws and policies. 1 Box 1 presents key policy recommendations from these guidelines. Box 1 WHO recommendations related to regulatory, policy and human rights considerations on abortion 1 Laws and policies on abortion should protect women’s health and their human rights. Regulatory, policy and programmatic barriers that hinder access to and timely provision of safe abortion care should be removed. An enabling regulatory and policy environment is needed to ensure that every woman who is legally eligible has ready access to safe abortion care. Policies should be geared to respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of women, to achieving positive health outcomes for women, to providing good-quality contraceptive information and services, and to meeting the particular needs of poor women, adolescents, rape survivors and women living with HIV. HIV: human immunodeficiency virus; WHO: World Health Organization. The guidelines also contain recommendations on methods, medical standards, service-delivery requirements for safe abortion, and provision of treatment for abortion complications. 1 In 2015, emerging scientific evidence led to new WHO recommendations, which emphasized that safe abortion services in early pregnancy are primary-care-level procedures and specified which cadres of health workers can provide this care. 2 Improving information on abortion laws Eliminating unsafe abortion will require multisectoral actions that create and strengthen enabling legal and policy environments for safe abortion and for the implementation of evidence-based policies and programmes aimed at improving service access and quality. However, to achieve these outcomes, the process must be informed by accurate and readily accessible information on countries’ existing laws and policies. Unfortunately, in many countries, policies that influence abortion access, availability and quality are difficult to obtain and use for decision-making, whether by women, girls, service providers or policy-makers. Building on UN DESA’s World Population Policies Database, which has tracked legal grounds for abortion since the mid-1990s, the Global Abortion Policies Database aims to provide a more comprehensive information-resource tool. Initiated in early 2015, HRP engaged several research partners to retrieve abortion laws, policies, health standards and guidelines for WHO and UN Member States. Selected data were extracted onto a policy questionnaire that was rigorously cross-checked by public health and law experts and sent to countries for review. The new database presents information on a broad range of policy domains: legal grounds and related gestational limits; authorization and service-delivery requirements; policies about who can provide abortion and where, when and how abortion services are permitted; and criminal penalties for women, girls, health-care providers and others (Box 2). Box 2 Policy domains highlighted in the Global Abortion Policies Database Abortion legal grounds and related gestational age limits Other legal requirements for abortion access Third-party authorizations (parents, spouses, health-care providers, courts) Police reports for rape Compulsory counselling Mandatory waiting periods Medically unnecessary screening tests Who can be criminally charged and associated penalties for unlawful abortion Restrictions on public information about abortion National standards for abortion care Existence of service-delivery guidelines Who can provide abortion services Where abortion can be provided Methods permitted National insurance coverage for abortion Registration of mifepristone and/or misoprostol Policies on conscientious objection In addition to data on specific abortion policies, individual country profiles include selected sexual and reproductive health indicators, links to State-ratified human rights treaties, and links to UN Treaty Monitoring Body Concluding Observations and Special Procedure Reports that address abortion. Most country abortion policies are juxtaposed to relevant information and recommendations from WHO Safe abortion: technical and policy guidance for health systems. 1 All information in the database is linked to source documents that can be accessed and downloaded for further review. The new database can help users to compare abortion laws and policies to the WHO guidelines, as well as among countries and geographical regions. It can also facilitate grasping the complexities and nuances of laws and policies that were not addressed previously or were obscured behind more simplistic classification schemes. To promote greater transparency, the new database presents all abortion laws, policies and health standards as they are stated in the source documents. Guides on data collection and coding approach are available on the database websites. Extensive notes provide details on unique policy nuances and in those cases where multiple and sometimes conflicting policy documents exist. The Global Abortion Policies Database has two important limitations: (i) some source documents are known to exist but were inaccessible to data collectors; and (ii) data extraction for source documents written in languages other than English was performed using unofficial translation tools when native speakers were not available. To mitigate these limitations, we encourage countries to engage with WHO/HRP and UN DESA/Population Division to ensure that data are accurate and source documents are current and complete. Systematic updates of the database will be conducted every five years by formal engagement with countries through WHO country offices and health ministry counterparts. Interim updates will be made as needed, including when policies and laws are amended. Member States and other users are invited to provide suggestions for updates, corrections and feedback using the contact form available at the database websites. Interim updates will be posted periodically, pending receipt and verification of the primary source document(s). Conclusion The global picture for abortion laws and policies is complex. Individual countries’ laws and policies can be protective or punitive, specific or non-specific, and limiting or facilitating for access and service provision. The new database provides a comprehensive compilation of country-specific documents and information on abortion in one readily accessible tool. This tool can facilitate increased transparency of available written laws and policies on abortion in a particular country. The database does not address how laws and policies are applied in practice, and so database users interested in progressive policy reform to protect women and girls’ health and human rights are encouraged to generate evidence on how laws and policies are implemented.

            Author and article information

            BMC Int Health Hum Rights
            BMC Int Health Hum Rights
            BMC International Health and Human Rights
            BioMed Central (London )
            12 September 2018
            12 September 2018
            : 18
            : 35
            [1 ]ISNI 0000000121633745, GRID grid.3575.4, Department of Reproductive Health and Research and UNDP-UNFPA-UNICEF-WHO-World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), , World Health Organization, ; 20 Avenue Appia, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland
            [2 ]ISNI 0000000121633745, GRID grid.3575.4, UNDP-UNFPA-UNICEF-WHO-World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), , World Health Organization, ; 20 Avenue Appia, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland
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            © The Author(s). 2018

            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
            : 28 August 2018
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            Health & Social care
            abortion laws,abortion policies,abortion guidelines,abortion human rights standards


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