The Worldwatch Institute has just published a study on the global politics of abortion that pulls together some stunning figures on the human toll of restrictive abortion policies: Worldwide, about 50 million abortions are performed each year; half are illegal, and at least 200,000 women die from the illegal ones.

Senior researcher Jodi L. Jacobson, who wrote the report, cautions that data from Third World countries are often incomplete. She believes that several times that many women may die, and for every woman who dies an additional 30 to 40 "suffer serious, often lifelong health problems." More than half of all abortion-related deaths worldwide are in South and Southeast Asia, followed by sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The conservative figure of 200,000 deaths is from the World Health Organization. Another study done of India estimated that half a million women die each year in that country alone as a result of complications from illegal abortions.

"Perhaps the most distressing fact about abortion-related deaths and illnesses is that the vast majority of complications that lead to these outcomes are totally preventable," writes Jacobson. "What consigns so many women around the world to death or physical impairment is not a deficiency in technology, but a deficiency in the value placed on women's lives."

Use of outdated techniques in the Soviet Union contributed to its relatively high number of abortion-related deaths: 46 per 100,000 live births in 1987, compared with nine in the U.S.

Abortion is one of the most controversial political topics in the world, Jacobson points out, but the arguments are being couched in a series of myths based on a kind of "moral absolutism" perpetuated by abortion opponents. "This absolutist view is blind to the vast public health and social costs of restrictive abortion policies."

Among the myths is that there is theological unanimity on the point. Jacobson traces the evolution of the Catholic Church's teachings from tolerance of abortion to its present preaching that assigns the same value to the life of a woman as that of an embryo. Islamic religions allow abortions through the fourth month of pregnancy. "In spite of strict teachings, women of every faith have defied dogma in their reliance on abortion as a means of ending unwanted pregnancies. Illegal abortion is widespread throughout heavily Catholic Latin America, for example, and in the United States, 32 percent of all abortions are obtained by Catholic women."

Another myth, she says, is that criminalizing abortions will eliminate them. All that does is make them less safe, and far more costly from a public health standpoint. A study of 617 women who were hospitalized for abortion complications in Zaire found that 95 percent needed antibiotics, 62 percent anesthetics, and 17 percent transfusions. "The increased competition for health resources posed by the growing numbers of illegal abortions in Africa will make coping with another health crisis there -- AIDS -- that much more difficult.

"Underneath the rhetoric are buried the real fissures of the abortion controversy: the changing role of women in society and the perceived challenges this presents to men, the ensuing declines in fertility, and the effects of these trends on access to the resources that determine political and economic power," writes Jacobson.

"A moral smokescreen effectively obscures the huge public health, human rights and social costs of restrictive abortion policies. Although abortion politics is everywhere dominated by men, women bear the burden of restricted access. It is the number of maternal deaths, not abortions, that is most affected by legal codes."

Jacobson cites numerous examples of countries that have reduced abortions by initiating extensive family planning programs, although she notes that abortion foes usually oppose family planning. And she argues that eliminating illegal abortions will not only reduce maternal mortality by about 25 percent, but it will save billions in social and health care costs, freeing them for other uses.

The report puts a global perspective on a public health problem that has staggering costs for women around the world. As American women defend their rights at home, they would do well to remember Third World women who are dying every day because of illegal abortions and nonexistent contraception. Our international family planning efforts, politicized by abortion opponents in the Bush and Reagan administrations, have contributed to this terrible international tragedy. Jacobson argues that it is time to move from crime to common sense. It is also time to get rid of the moral smokescreen that has done such damage and to replace it with human compassion.