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Abortion Laws: an Ongoing Global Debate

By Flavia Marroni

On May 2, 2022, protests broke out in Washington, D.C. when a draft opinion from the Supreme Court was leaked indicating an intent to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling protecting pregnant women’s right to an abortion.

 “The immediate impact of the ruling as drafted in February would be to end a half-century guarantee of federal constitutional protection of abortion rights and allow each state to decide whether to restrict or ban abortion,” explains Politico

This draft has reopened a wider debate on abortion laws, which globally are very different for every country. 

“Each year, around seventy-three million abortions take place worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO),” as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). 

Progress has been made on the legalization of abortion, access to abortion and the safety of the procedure. However, these facts vary widely depending on the country and its specific laws on abortion. Within the United States, abortion laws and access to safe abortion vary greatly from one state to the next. 

“Almost 90 percent of abortions in countries with liberal abortion laws are considered safe, compared with just 25 percent of abortions in countries where abortion is banned,” according to CFR. Therefore the laws on abortion affect the safety and success of these procedures, but at least two dozen countries ban abortion entirely.

Many international organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, have declared access to safe abortions to be a human right.

Although the legalization of abortion is key to safe abortion practices, some countries that have legalized abortion are still struggling to provide adequate access to it. For example, Zambia has a very liberal abortion law, nonetheless, it has a high rate (30%) of maternal mortality due to abortion complications.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 24 countries in the world prohibit abortion under any circumstance. These countries include Aruba, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Madagascar and San Marino. This means 90 million women of reproductive age reside in countries that have banned abortions altogether.

There are 42 countries that permit abortion when the woman’s life is at risk. Among these are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Iran, Lebanon and Venezuela. Altogether 22% of women of reproductive age live in countries with such abortion laws. 

Subsequently, some countries permit access to abortion in order to maintain the woman’s health, going beyond strictly allowing abortions to save the mother’s life. The Center for Reproductive Rights classifies 51 countries in this category. However, some countries only allow abortions to prevent disease or infirmity, thus when physical health is at risk, while others also allow abortions to preserve the mother’s mental health. 

The fourth category consists of 13 countries which allow abortion on socioeconomic grounds. They take into account the social and economic circumstances of the woman which would impact her ability to give birth to and raise the child.  Countries in this category include Finland, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India and Japan.

73 countries fall under the last category, those with the most liberal abortion laws, granting abortion on request. However, most of these countries have a gestational limit of 12 weeks, such as Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Ireland, Russia, Switzerland, Thailand and Ukraine. Others have a gestational limit of 90 days, including Austria, Italy, Mongolia and Tunisia. 

Time limits vary among countries, while others instead require a form of authorization to allow the abortion. For example, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United States and others require parental authorization. Turkey additionally requires spousal authorization. Overall, about 36% of women of reproductive age, about 601 million women, live in countries where abortion is allowed on request. 

The general global trend since the year 2000 has been moving towards legalization of abortion. China, for example, legalized abortion back in 1950 with its one-child policy, both fulfilling the state desire to slow population growth. In 2016 this became a two-child policy, which turned into a three-child policy in 2021.

China’s laws on abortion have changed based on the state’s population goals. China’s most recent state-directed family planning plan, released on Jan. 28, 2022, focused on reducing abortions and unplanned pregnancies, especially in unmarried women and adolescents. Abortion has been legal and very common in China since the one-child policy, which encouraged abortions in order to comply with the regulation. Nowadays, China’s birth rate is quickly decreasing, thus the government is showing strong efforts to reverse this trend. As described in an article by the Wall Street Journal, back in September, China’s State Council released a plan that “included a goal to reduce ‘medically unnecessary’ abortions, but didn’t mention specific actions.”

However, the absence of specific actions of implementation is something relatively common in the abortion laws of many countries of the world, something which can potentially be used to deny women access to abortion.

There were nearly 14 million abortions in 1991 compared to roughly 9 million in 2020; China’s new efforts to reduce abortions come in an attempt to lower these high numbers. According to Chinese demographers, the use of abortion procedures, with women sometimes having multiple abortions, has had a significant impact on the infertility rate in China affecting 18% of couples of reproductive age, with the global average being 15%.

The new plan posted by the China Family-Planning Association sparked concern in Chinese feminists and human-rights activists that it could make it harder for women to access abortions. At the same time, researchers say that it doesn’t necessarily need to have such negative consequences and that it may actually be a positive change since China’s abortion rates are much higher than most countries in Asia. 

“The association’s plan could mean measures such as promoting sex education, cracking down on illegal clinics and making contraceptive tools more available to young people,” said Huang Wenzheng, a researcher at the Center for Globalization.

Another country with a complicated history of abortion laws is Italy. Abortion was legalized in Italy in 1978, stating that “all women are eligible to request an abortion during the first 90 days of gestation for health, economic, social or familial reasons.” Thus, once a woman in Italy provides a certificate from her general practitioner confirming her state of pregnancy, she is able to obtain an abortion free-of-charge in a health clinic of the National Health Care System. 

The problem is that if there are complications or issues after the 90-day mark, it is very difficult to get an abortion in Italy. Law 194, Italy’s abortion law, grants doctors and nurses the right to “conscientiously object” to performing an abortion. This can make it hard for women in areas where many doctors are “conscientious objectors” to find a place to get an abortion. 

Some of the stricter cases of abortion laws include Ireland. Ireland for a long time had one of the most repressive abortion laws in Europe. Abortion was only legalized in Ireland in 2018, but only before 12 weeks or in the case of the mother’s health being in danger. 

Poland as well has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, making abortions due to fetal abnormalities unconstitutional in 2020. Abortions to save a mother’s life, or in case of rape or incest are still legal, but doctors are now less inclined to perform them due to the new ban. 

Among the most liberal laws on abortion is in Canada. In 1988, according to Canada’s National Abortion Federation, “Canada became one of a small number of countries without a law restricting abortion. Abortion was now treated like any other medical procedure.” 

Today there are many countries in the world where it is almost impossible for women to get an abortion, often risking years in prison for attempting to. In Malta, women can face three years in jail for getting an abortion even when their own life and health is at risk. In the United Arab Emirates, women can face both fines and time in jail because abortion is illegal, except in the case that the woman’s life is in danger due to the pregnancy, or if it is proven that the child cannot survive. El Salvador has banned abortions with no exceptions since 1998. 

Laws on abortion vary greatly, with different restrictions, based on the country you find yourself in. There has not yet been any agreement on a universal law governing abortion as an undeniable right and abortion laws remain one of the most controversial topics globally.

Flavia Marroni

American '24

Flavia is a junior at American University majoring in International Relations with a minor in French. She is from Rome, Italy, but is now living in DC, and is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish. Flavia is currently a contributing writer for HCAU, focusing on gender equality and women's rights.
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