Abortion is murder!”--a common enough slogan among pro-life advocates in the United States—arouses a powerful emotional response on both sides of the issue. For some, it reflects a sincerely held belief; for others, it offends a woman’s right to choose; but for doctors in Zambia, it reflects a harsh legal reality. In this country of thirteen million in southern Africa, doctors who perform abortions can be – and often are – charged with murder.

Nevertheless, many doctors continue to perform the procedure, undeterred by the legal ramifications; in the capital, Lusaka, an undercover reporter for Radio Netherlands discovered that a woman can procure an abortion for as little as 20 euros. Chinese doctors, who are often poorly regulated, are the most common providers.

This reality underscores a central problem behind stringent anti-abortion laws: they do not actually deter women from terminating pregnancies. In fact, abortion rates are often highest in countries with stringent anti-abortion laws. Most of what restricting abortion does, it seems, is increase the number of unsafe procedures; according to a recent article in the New York Times, worldwide maternal mortality due to unsafe abortions hovers at a constant rate of about 70,000 a year.

As Zambia has discovered, it is practically impossible to prevent women from ending their pregnancies if they feel they must. Abortion is not something that the state can effectively regulate, even in societies where huge penalties and social stigma are associated with the practice.

In the United States, Roe v. Wade has been in place long enough that many in the new generation of pro-life activists have never lived in a United States where abortion was illegal. As such, many fail to recognize that abortion policy does not rest solely on the grounds of moral justification. Whether or not you believe that abortion is ethically permissible, it is vital to assess the consequences of a ban on abortion. The prospect of back alley abortions, secrecy, and severe health complications is not hypothetical. Just look at Zambia, where the law is as strict as it could possibly be, yet these off-the-record, dangerous procedures persist.

As the American debate rages on, escalated by the recent laws passed in Virginia and up for vote in several other states, it seems prudent to watch how the rest of the world deals with this vital issue. As Zambia has shown, the debate over abortion has more than just morals at stake. For countless Zambian women and the doctors who treat them, it is a matter of life and death.