BACKGROUND Unsafe abortion is a major public health problem in Ghana; despite its liberal abortion law, access to safe, legal abortion in public health facilities is limited. Theory is often neglected as a tool for providing evidence to inform better practice; in this study we investigated the reasons for poor implementation of the policy in Ghana using Lipsky's theory of street-level bureaucracy to better understand how providers shape and implement policy and how provider-level barriers might be overcome. METHODS In-depth interviews were conducted with 43 health professionals of different levels (managers, obstetricians, midwives) at three hospitals in Accra, as well as staff from smaller and private sector facilities. Relevant policy and related documents were also analysed. RESULTS Findings confirm that health providers' views shape provision of safe-abortion services. Most prominently, providers experience conflicts between their religious and moral beliefs about the sanctity of (foetal) life and their duty to provide safe-abortion care. Obstetricians were more exposed to international debates, treaties, and safe-abortion practices and had better awareness of national research on the public health implications of unsafe abortions; these factors tempered their religious views. Midwives were more driven by fundamental religious values condemning abortion as sinful. In addition to personal views and dilemmas, 'social pressures' (perceived views of others concerning abortion) and the actions of facility managers affected providers' decision to (openly) provide abortion services.In order to achieve a workable balance between these pressures and duties, providers use their 'discretion' in deciding if and when to provide abortion services, and develop 'coping mechanisms' which impede implementation of abortion policy. CONCLUSIONS The application of theory confirmed its utility in a lower-middle income setting and expanded its scope by showing that provider values and attitudes (not just resource constraints) modify providers' implementation of policy; moreover their power of modification is constrained by organisational hierarchies and mid-level managers. We also revealed differing responses of 'front line workers' regarding the pressures they face; whilst midwives are seen globally as providers of safe-abortion services, in Ghana the midwife cadre displays more negative attitudes towards them than doctors. These findings allow the identification of recommendations for evidence-based practice.