08/21/2012 01:47 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Can We Talk About Abortion?

Recently the Rwandan government took a progressive step in its legislation. Women who are pregnant as a result of rape, forced marriage or incest, or whose pregnancy endangers their health, are now legally entitled to safe abortion procedures.

Rwanda reduced criminal penalties against women who seek abortions and doctors who perform them, and lifted its reservation to article 14(2)(c) of the Maputo Protocol on women's rights -- the section of the Protocol which states that medical abortions should be permitted in cases of rape, incest, and endangerment of a woman's health.

This decision by Rwanda is to be applauded as a major gesture in support of women (although recently there has been criticism of the Rwanda administration's approach to human rights in other respects.) The slow loosening of harsh attitudes towards abortion will make things better for many people in Rwandan society.

The thing is that when governments ban abortion, that doesn't mean abortions stop. The Guttmacher Institute states that between 2003 and 2008, the number of induced abortions in Africa rose: astonishingly, in 2008, 13 percent of all pregnancies in Africa ended in abortion.

When these procedures are illegal, they occur in clandestine conditions and are much more hazardous for women. For instance, in Uganda almost a quarter of women seeking abortions go to traditional practitioners; more than 22 percent try to induce abortions themselves using dangerous methods or abortion-inducing drugs. The result of such trends is evident in WHO statistics: Worldwide, unsafe abortions are responsible for 13 percent of maternal deaths. "Although unsafe abortions are preventable," the report notes, "they continue to pose undue risks to women's health and lives."

Anyone who follows this issue knows how fraught and explosive it is. The U.S. has been experiencing its own internal struggle about abortion this year, with clinics closing across some parts of the country because of funding cuts and political pressure (most recently in Tennessee).

The WHO statistics ought to remind us all that the debate should not be about politics; it's about women, their health, and the lives of their families and their children. These are the terms that ought to frame our discussion.

The Maputo Protocol -- also known as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women In Africa -- is the only international treaty to explicitly guarantee women's rights to legal abortion, according to the Association For Women's Rights in Development. So far, 46 African states have signed the treaty and 28 have gone on to ratify it (four states have done neither: Botswana, Egypt, Eritrea and Tunisia).

The fact remains that the benefits of legalizing abortions are proven: When abortion laws were liberalized in South Africa 15 years ago, the number of abortion-related deaths subsequently dropped by 91 percent, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

So it is my hope that despite the emotions surrounding this issue, governments will continue to move forward, not back. Let's celebrate Rwanda's decision -- and hope that for the sake of women, other countries will follow suit.