Context: Although Guatemalan law permits induced abortion only to save a woman's life, many women obtain abortions, often under unsafe conditions and in response to an unintended pregnancy. Recent studies indicate that unsafe abortion is a key factor contributing to maternal morbidity and mortality in the country, but no national data on the incidence of abortion exist.
Methods: Surveys of all hospitals that treat women for postabortion complications and of 74 professionals who are knowledgeable about the conditions of abortion provision in Guatemala were conducted in 2003. Indirect estimation techniques were used to calculate the number of induced abortions performed annually. Abortion rates and ratios and the level of unintended pregnancy were calculated for the nation and its eight regions.
Results: Nearly 65,000 induced abortions are performed annually in Guatemala, and about 21,600 women are hospitalized for treatment of complications. Abortions occur at a rate of 24 per 1,000 women aged 15-49, and there is one abortion for every six births. The abortion rate is higher than average in the Southwest (less developed, mainly indigenous population) and Metropolitan (more developed, mainly nonindigenous population) regions (29-30 per 1,000 women). Over a quarter of all births are unplanned; combining unplanned births with abortions yields estimates that 32% of pregnancies in Guatemala are unintended, with an unintended pregnancy rate of 66 per 1,000 women.
Conclusions: Unsafe abortion has a significant impact on women's health in Guatemala. Comprehensive government programs are needed to address the issues of unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion, with attention to regional differences.