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Concern over unsafe abortions in Papua New Guinea

A mother and her child outside the Eastern Highlands Provincial Hospital in Goroka. Maternal health is a key challenge in Papua New Guinea
(David Swanson/IRIN)

Health experts are concerned about the number of unsafe abortions taking place in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

“Nobody knows the actual numbers, but it’s clear the number of school-age girls [having unsafe abortions] is unacceptably high,” says Lisa Vallely, head of the maternal and child health section of the PNG Institute of Medical Research (IMR) and principal investigator of a new study on the issue.

“These are the figures at the hospital level only. We still don’t know what is happening outside in the community,” she told IRIN on the sidelines of the Second International Congress on Women’s Health and Unsafe Abortion in Bangkok.

The six-month study (not online) looked at all admissions of spontaneous and induced abortions in Eastern Highlands Provincial Hospital in Goroka. Of 120 reported miscarriages admitted to the hospital over the period, 23 percent (28 women) were induced abortions, with more than half taking place 12-26 weeks into the pregnancy.

Most were young girls, attending school or higher education, and most of these induced abortions took place using prescription-only tablets purchased through healthcare workers or at a pharmacy. Others reported using traditional herbs and physical means, including strenuous exercise, inserting a stick into the vagina and tying a rope around the abdomen.

Many women resorted to abortions for fear of shaming their family; so they could continue their education; or because they were still breastfeeding another child, the study found.

A recent study of the situation in Goroka highlighted sepsis due to unsafe abortion as a leading cause of maternal mortality.

According to the World Health Organization, unsafe abortions - almost all in developing countries - cause an estimated 47,000 deaths annually. Unsafe abortion is one of the main contributors (13 percent) to maternal mortality worldwide, and encompasses procedures outside hospitals, clinics and surgeries, or without qualified medical supervision.

Maternal health remains a key challenge in PNG. According to an inter-agency review based on 2008 data, some 250 mothers die per 100,000 live births.

Abortion is illegal in PNG unless two doctors agree a woman’s life may be at risk. However, the practice of induced abortions is widely practised, health workers say.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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