Though the law in India has permitted medical termination of pregnancy on broad legal grounds for over two decades, unsafe abortions carried out by unqualified providers show no signs of decreasing. A community-based study was undertaken in rural South India to determine the prevalence of induced abortion, women's reasons for seeking abortion, who was providing abortions and whether the procedures were safe or unsafe. A cross-sectional study design was used that included focus group discussions with 88 women and a quantitative survey with 195 married women who had a birth interval of two or more years since their last pregnancy. There was a high prevalence of induced abortion (28 per cent) among the study population, mainly among women who were not using contraception. Most abortions were carried out in the first trimester of pregnancy and unqualified practitioners performed 65 per cent of terminations. The preference for illegal, untrained providers in a country where abortion is legally available exposes the ambiguity in the status of abortion and how inadequacies in legal service provision have served to promote and sustain unsafe providers and practices. An integrated approach to family planning and reproductive health which includes abortion is imperative if the reproductive health status of Indian women is to be improved. The poor utilisation of existing government facilities suggests the need for improving the quality of services, expansion of abortion facilities and the introduction of safer methods of abortion. To do this, a re-examination and re-framing of aspects of the 1971 abortion law is needed.