December 2022

Incidence of and experiences with abortion attempts in Soweto, South Africa: Respondent-driven sampling study

Gerdts C, Jayaweera RT, Motana R, Bessenaar T, Wesson P.  JMIR Public Health. Dec 2022. DOI: 10.2196/38045

Estimation of abortion incidence, particularly in settings where most abortions occur outside of health facility settings, is critical for understanding information gaps and service delivery needs in different settings. However, the existing methods for measuring out-of-facility abortion incidence are plagued with methodological challenges. Respondent-driven sampling (RDS) may offer a methodological improvement in the estimation of abortion incidence.

In this study, we tested the feasibility of using RDS to recruit participants into a study about abortion and estimated the proportion of people who ever attempted abortion as well as 1-year and 5-year incidence of abortion (both in-facility and out-of-facility settings) among women of reproductive age in Soweto, South Africa.

Participants were eligible if they identified as a woman; were aged between 15 and 49 years; spoke English, Tswana, isiZulu, Sotho, or Xhosa; and lived in Soweto. Working with community partners, we identified 11 seeds who were provided with coupons to refer eligible peers to the study. Upon arrival at the study site, the recruits completed an interviewer-administered questionnaire that solicited information about demographic characteristics, social network composition, health behaviors, sexual history, pregnancy history, and experience with abortion; recruits also received 3 recruitment coupons. Recruitment was tracked using coupon numbering. We used the RDS-II estimator to estimate the population proportions of demographic characteristics and our primary outcome, the proportion of people who ever attempted abortion.

Between April 4, 2018, and December 17, 2018, 849 eligible participants were recruited into the study. The estimated proportion of people who ever attempted abortion was 12.1% (95% CI 9.7%-14.4%). A total of 7.1% (95% CI 5.4%-8.9%) reported a facility-based abortion, and 4.4% (95% CI 3.0%-5.8%) reported an out-of-facility abortion.

The estimated proportion of people who ever attempted abortion of 12% (102/849) in our study likely represents a substantial underestimation of the actual proportion of abortion attempts among this study population—representing a failure of the RDS method to generate more reliable estimates of abortion incidence in our study. We caution against the use of RDS to measure the incidence of abortion because of persistent concerns with underreporting but consider potential alternative applications of RDS with respect to the study of abortion.