Unsafe abortions are becoming increasingly popular and accounts for nearly half of all abortions worldwide, according a new global analysis by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization. 

After a period of significant decline, the rate of all abortions is beginning to plateau even though unsafe abortion is on the rise, according to study published on Thursday.

Researchers reported a slight decrease in abortion rates for women aged 15 to 44-years-old from 29 per 1,000 women in 2003 to 28 per 1,000 in 2008, but the proportion of unsafe abortions rose from 44 percent in 1995 to 49 percent in 2008.

Researchers said that before the abortion rate stalled, it was declining significantly with the increasing rates of contraceptive use, according to United Nations statistics.

“This plateau coincides with a slowdown in contraceptive uptake. Without greater investment in quality family planning services, we can expect this trend to persist,” said Gilda Sedgh , lead author of the study and a senior researcher at the Guttmacher Institute.

The new analysis defined unsafe abortion according to the WHO description which considers an abortion to be dangerous when a procedure for terminating pregnancy is performed by a person who is lacking the necessary skills or if it is performed in an environment that does not conform to minimal medical standards.

The study consisted of data from national surveys, official statistics, hospital records and research papers from around the world.

Researchers noted that even though there was a decline in overall abortion rate, the number of abortions increased from 41.6 million in 2003 to 43.8 million due to an increasing global population.

Almost all reported abortions in North America and Europe were safe, but 97 percent of all abortions in Africa were considered unsafe in 2008, and while nearly all abortions were performed under safe conditions in East Asia, 65 percent were considered unsafe in south central Asia.

Researchers estimated that in 2008 21 percent of worldwide pregnancies and 26 percent of pregnancies in the developing world ended in abortion.

Previous WHO studies showed that unsafe abortions accounted for 13 percent of all maternal deaths across the globe, and almost all of these deaths occurred in developing countries.  Researchers estimated that roughly 8.5 million women in developing countries experience abortion complications that required medical condition and more than a third of these women do not receive the needed care. 

“Deaths and disability related to unsafe abortion are entirely preventable, and some progress has been made in developing regions. Africa is the exception, accounting for 17% of the developing world's population of women of childbearing age but half of all unsafe abortion–related deaths," said Iqbal Shah, of the WHO and a coauthor of the study in a statement.

 “Within developing countries, risks are greatest for the poorest women. They have the least access to family planning services and are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of an unsafe procedure. Poor women also have the least access to post-abortion care, when they need treatment for complications,” Shah added.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet journal where the study is published said that the latest abortion figures were “deeply disturbing” and that the progress made in the 1990s is now in reverse.  Horton said that supporting and implementing policies to reduce the number of abortions is now an “urgent priority for all countries” and health organizations.

“Condemning, stigmatizing, and criminalizing abortion are cruel and failed strategies. It's time for a public health approach that emphasizes reducing harm - and that means more liberal abortion laws," Horton concluded in a statement