Speech at opening of meeting on improving access to safe abortion care and related reproductive health services in the European Region

30 May 2012, Riga, Latvia

Honourable Madam Minister, distinguished First Lady of Georgia, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank Ms Ingrida Circene, the Minister of Health of Latvia, for her support in improving maternal health in Latvia and the European Region and the readiness of Latvia to host this very important regional meeting.

I also would like to thank Mrs Sandra Roelofs, the First Lady of Georgia, for her constant work as WHO Goodwill Ambassador in raising the profile of the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the European Region and for her active participation at this meeting which supports the implementation of actions towards the achievement of MDGs.

I would like to express my gratitude to the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network, our long-term partner in improving sexual and reproductive health in Europe, for its involvement in organizing this meeting and ensuring that civil-society organizations are represented and heard when we discuss women’s health issues and the ways to improve them.
I am very pleased to see that so many countries are present here today and have expressed their interest in joining forces in improving women’s quality of life.

I am happy to welcome representatives of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Marie Stopes International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Ipas, the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development and many other international organizations. With Member States and partners, WHO is constantly looking for the most effective and efficient means to deliver high-quality public health services in a world characterized by increased inequities and limited resources. There are many challenges, so why is the topic on prevention of unsafe abortion so important globally and in European Region? And why now?

There is remarkable progress in preventing unintended pregnancies and promoting effective contraception and family planning globally and in Europe. Available health information data reveal substantial declines in abortion rates in the European Region, but millions of people in our Region still do lack access to high-quality information, contraceptive services and supplies.

Limited access to means of preventing unintended pregnancies and to safe abortion services results in about 22 million unsafe abortions globally, and causes close to 50 000 maternal deaths each year. In addition, approximately 5 million women suffer short-term or lifelong disabilities due to complications. WHO plays the lead role among United Nations agencies in preventing unsafe abortion. In order to achieve this, it is crucial that we get a better understanding of the existing barriers to safe abortion and learn from existing evidence and the experience of other countries.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe collaborates closely with its partners to support countries to decrease unmet needs for family planning, especially for vulnerable groups such as poor and rural populations, adolescents, migrants and ethnic minorities. The recently developed review of the social determinants of health, carried out under the leadership of Sir Michael Marmot of the United Kingdom, confirms the present inequalities in health, including reproductive health in the European Region. This meeting is another important step in the right direction.

As a result of the active involvement of governments and international organizations, abortion rates in eastern Europe have fallen significantly in recent years. Nevertheless, according to available information, they still remain higher than in any other region.

Scientific progress is so fast nowadays. WHO constantly gathers new evidence from research and practice outcomes in improving access to safe abortion. These data are analysed and carefully evaluated to be sure that WHO provides guidance based on the best available evidence.

I am really proud that the WHO European Region is the first WHO region to present the updated version of the WHO guidelines “Safe abortion: technical and policy guidance for health systems”, the result of major efforts of the research community, international partners and the WHO Secretariat. We know what needs to be done to improve access to and the quality of abortion services.

I firmly believe that together we will find ways to make abortion rare, accessible and safe. I would like to assure you that WHO will continue to support countries in revising their policies and improving the quality of services on prevention of unsafe abortion, as well as addressing inequality in health.

I wish you all a very fruitful discussion and also very pleasant stay in beautiful Riga.