Summary Illegal abortion is known to be a major contributor to maternal mortality. The objective of the study was firstly to identify women with illegally induced abortion, (IA) and to compare them with women admitted with a spontaneous abortion (SA) or receiving antenatal care (AC), and secondly to describe the circumstances which characterized the abortion. The population of this cross-sectional questionnaire study comprised patients from Temeke District Hospital, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. After an in-depth confidential interview, 603 women with incomplete abortion were divided into two groups: 362 women with IA and 241 with SA. They were compared with 307 AC women. IA women were significantly younger, more often better educated, unmarried, nulliparous and students than AC women. Regarding civil-status, educational level, proportion of nullipara and proportion of students, SA patients were similar to AC women. These results lend support to the assumption that the in-depth confidential interview made it possible to distinguish IA women from SA women.