IN THE Dominican Republic last month, a pregnant teenager suffering from leukaemia had her chemotherapy delayed, because doctors feared the treatment could terminate her pregnancy, violating the nation’s strict anti-abortion law.

After consultations between doctors, lawyers, and the girl’s family, chemotherapy was started, but not before attention had again been focused on the rigidity of many developing countries’ abortion laws.

Abortion receives extensive coverage in developed countries, especially in the United States, where Republicans have used opposition to it to rally voters. But much less attention is given to the 86 per cent of all abortions that occur in the developing world. Although most countries in Africa and Latin America have laws prohibiting abortion in most circumstances, official bans do not prevent high abortion rates.

In Africa, there are 29 abortions per 1,000 women, and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America. The comparable figure for Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted in most circumstances, is 12. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation, unsafe abortions lead to the death of 47,000 women a year, almost all of them in developing countries. Restricting access to legal abortion leads many poor women to seek abortion from unsafe providers. The legalisation of abortion on request in South Africa in 1998 saw abortion-related deaths drop by 91 per cent. And the development of the drugs misoprostol and mifepristone, which can be provided by pharmacists, makes relatively safe and inexpensive abortion possible in developing countries.