Journal Article

Treading the thin line: Pharmacy workers’ perspectives on medication abortion provision in Lusaka, Zambia

Context
Despite liberal abortion laws, safe abortion access in Zambia is impeded by limited legal awareness, lack of services, and restrictive clinical policies. As in many countries with restricted abortion access, women frequently seek abortions informally from pharmacies.

Methods
We conducted 16 in‐depth interviews in 2019 to understand the experiences and motivations of pharmacy workers who sell medication abortion (MA) drugs in Lusaka.

Results
We found that pharmacy staff reluctantly assume a gatekeeper role for MA due to competing pressures from clients and from regulatory constraints. Pharmacy staff often decide to provide MA, motivated by their duty of care and desire to help clients, as well as financial interests. However, pharmacy workers’ motivation to protect themselves from legal and business risk perpetuates inequalities in abortion access, as pharmacy workers improvise additional eligibility criteria based on personal risk and values such as age, partner approval, reason for abortion, and level of desperation.

Conclusion
These findings highlight how pharmacy staff informally determine women's abortion access when laws and policies prevent comprehensive access to safe abortion. Reform of clinical guidelines, public education, strengthened public sector availability, task sharing, and improved access to prescription services are needed to ensure women can legally access safe abortion.

Published in a peer-reviewed journal of the Population Council.