In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Abortion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Abortion Activism
  • Motherhood and Abortion
  • Adolescents, Young Women, and Abortion
  • Vulnerable Women and Abortion

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Social Work Abortion
Gretchen E. Ely
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0212


Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy, which includes deliberate termination and spontaneous termination, also referred to as “miscarriage.” The term “abortion” is typically associated with the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, usually occurring before twenty-eight weeks of gestation. The two types of deliberate abortions are surgical and medical. Surgical abortion involves using medical instruments to empty the uterus of the products of conception. In a medical abortion, medication is used to force the ending of the pregnancy. Abortions are categorized as either therapeutic or elective. Therapeutic abortion occurs when the termination is necessary for health reasons; elective abortion occurs when a pregnancy is ended by choice. The estimated rate of abortion worldwide in 2008 was twenty-eight per one thousand women, and nearly half of abortions performed are considered unsafe, with 98 percent of those unsafe procedures taking place in developing nations. Legal surgical abortion is one of the safest and most widely performed medical procedures available, yet it is heavily regulated worldwide because of tremendous religious, political, and personal disagreement regarding its ethical and moral acceptability. Thirty-two countries restrict abortion under any circumstances, thirty-six countries permit abortion only in extenuating circumstances (i.e., rape, incest), fifty-nine additional countries allow abortion in cases in which the woman’s health or mental health is at risk, and seventy countries allow some type of elective abortion. All nations allowing elective abortion impose gestational time limits on the procedure. The International Federation of Social Work, the National Association of Social Workers of the United States, and others support elective abortion as a necessary part of overall access to safe and affordable reproductive health care and family planning services. The commitment of social work to abortion access can be attributed to the profession’s stated ethical commitment to a client’s right to self-determination. Other groups, such as the International Right to Life Federation and the Catholic Church, oppose access to abortion based on their interpretation of religious beliefs and values.

General Overviews

The citations in this section provide overviews of the global status of abortion. The Guttmacher Institute 2012 offers a review of abortion worldwide including a discussion of abortion policy. Grimes and Creinin 2004 provides a medically based review of induced abortion that offers readability even for those outside the medical field. The issue brief prepared in Kessler, et al. 2005 delves into the overall demographics of abortion and directly addresses many of the sociopolitical controversies that surround abortion. Singh, et al. 2009 produced a comprehensive review of the progress and setbacks regarding abortion in recent history, which was an update to a previous report from the Guttmacher Institute. Sedgh, et al. 2012 provides an outline of worldwide incidence and trend information from 1995 to 2008. Denisov, et al. 2012 discusses abortion trends specific to Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, whereas Norman 2012 examines abortion trends in Canada, and the overview from Pazol, et al. 2012 focuses on medical abortion in the United States.

  • Denisov, Boris P., Victoria I. Sakevich, and Aiva Jasilioniene. 2012. Divergent trends in abortion and birth control practices in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. PLoS One 7.11: e49986.

    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049986

    The authors of this article discuss discrepancies related to contraceptive use and abortion rates among these three countries, indicating that differences are difficult to explain. This article is useful for understanding abortion trends in these cultures.

  • Grimes, David A., and Mitchell D. Creinin. 2004. Induced abortion: An overview for internists. Annals of Internal Medicine 140.8: 620–626.

    DOI: 10.7326/0003-4819-140-8-200404200-00009

    This is an essential review for professionals and students who wish to learn more about the basic medical facts of abortion, including who seeks abortion and how abortions are induced.

  • Guttmacher Institute. 2012. In Brief: Fact Sheet.

    This fact sheet was used to determine the current global status of abortion and abortion access.

  • Kessler, Jim, Jessica Dillon, Jon Kott, and James Solomon. 2005. The demographics of abortion: The great divide between abortion rhetoric and abortion reality. Washington, DC: Third Way.

    This issue brief presents a picture of abortion in the United States in terms of facts, policy, and sociopolitical rhetoric. Myths are debunked and challenged, as well. This brief is useful for professionals and students who are interested in law and policy knowledge and advocacy.

  • Norman, Wendy V. 2012. Induced abortion in Canada 1974–2005: Trends over the first generation with legal access. Contraception 85.2: 185–191.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.contraception.2011.06.009

    These authors indicate that induced abortion is experienced by approximately one-third of Canadian women and that there is an unmet need for contraception present in this country. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Pazol, Karen, Andreea A. Creanga, and Suzanne B. Zane. 2012. Trends in use of medical abortion in the United States: Reanalysis of surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001–2008. Contraception 86.6: 746–751.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.contraception.2012.05.023

    This is an important data source that provides accurate information on medical abortion use in the United States. Useful for understanding the rise in prevalence in medical abortions and resulting implications. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sedgh, Gilda, Susheela Singh, Iqbal H. Shah, Elisabeth Åhman, Stanley K. Henshaw, and Akinrinola Bankole. 2012. Induced abortion: Incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008. The Lancet 379.9816: 625–632.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61786-8

    This comprehensive review highlights the decline in abortion rates and discusses potential causes. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Singh, Susheela, Deirdre Wulf, Rubina Hussain, Akinrinola Bankole, and Gilda Sedgh. 2009. Abortion worldwide: A decade of uneven progress. New York: Guttmacher Institute.

    This work is a comprehensive report of the global status of abortion and highlights the global state of abortion in terms of laws, access, and advocacy progress.

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