The highest levels of unsafe abortions were in Africa, where only about one in four are safe and as a result abortion deaths are high.
The new figures, from the WHO with the Guttmacher Institute, are published in The Lancet medical journal at a time when international family planning organisations are deeply concerned over cuts to their budgets announced by the Trump administration in the US.
Experts say the proposed cuts, together with the reimposition of the restrictive Mexico City policy (also known as the Global Gag rule) which forbids US federal funds to any organisation that counsels women on abortion, can only make things worse.
The study finds that there are fewer abortions in places where abortion is safest, such as in northern Europe and northern America where women can get contraception easily. The authors explain that most countries in those two regions “have less restrictive laws on abortion, high contraceptive use, high economic development, high levels of gender equality, and well developed health infrastructures”.
Lead author Dr Bela Gunatra, from the WHO, said their work showed “the persistence of inequalities by geography, by income, by levels of development ... that’s the real tragedy that these findings point to.
“Safe abortion is a very safe procedure. It can be provided at primary health care level. It isn’t even necessary that it has to be a procedure. Now you can use tablets. There is nothing that requires this to be highly resourced.
“It is not science that is holding back the progress but barriers in terms of stigma and law.”