The Impact of Legal Reform of Abortion in South Africa – Women Deliver

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Sign up here

The Impact of Legal Reform of Abortion in South Africa



In developing countries, more than 22,000 women die from complications from unsafe abortion each year, and 6.9 million are treated for complications. In an effort to reduce abortion related deaths, South Africa legalized abortion in 1996, through the Choice in Termination of Pregnancy Act, which gives women, regardless of age or marital status, the right to access to abortion services within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The act can also extend access to 20 weeks of pregnancy in specific cases. The act served as one of the most liberal examples of abortion legislation globally and was fueled by findings from a national study on the epidemiology of incomplete abortion in 1994. The act brought to light the scale of the problem of unsafe abortion and repealed the 1975 Abortion and Sterilization Act that restricted access to abortion services by requiring approval for the procedure from a physician, and in some cases a court magistrate. The law’s passage was a crucial advancement for women, as it represented the recognition of reproductive rights. This law was enacted under the first democratically elected government in South Africa.



Since 1996, there has been a significant decrease in morbidity for women in South Africa who have undergone unsafe abortion, especially younger women. In 1994, a study concluded that teenagers in South Africa had the highest morbidity, which further underscores the importance of the legislation. A review of national data indicates that abortion mortality dropped by more than 90 percent between 1994 and 2001. Within the first three years of passing the Act in South Africa, services were incorporated into both private and public settings, leading to 40,000 legal terminations occurring per year, which was a large increase from the 800 to 1,000 per year under previous laws.


  1. “The impact of age on the epidemiology of incomplete abortions in South Africa after legislative change,” Rachel Jewkes, et al.
  2. “Abortion Reform in South Africa: A Case Study of the 1996 Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act,” Sally Guttmacher, et al.
  3. “Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1996,” President’s Office
  4. Unsafe Abortion in the Developing World;

For more programs, initiatives, and strategies that are delivering for girls and women please view The Improve Maternal and Newborn Health and Nutrition policy brief

News & Updates