Buenos Aires Times


Abortion rights around the world: a global snapshot

Senators in Argentina will vote Wednesday on the legalisation of abortion, which remains banned in some 20 countries worldwide, while others have highly restrictive laws in place.

Tuesday 7 August, 2018
People in favour of the legalisation of abortion demonstrate outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires.
People in favour of the legalisation of abortion demonstrate outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires. Foto:AFP-EITAN ABRAMOVICH

Senators in Argentina will vote Wednesday on the legalisation of abortion, which remains banned in some 20 countries worldwide, while others have highly restrictive laws in place.

According to the Center for Reproductive Health, "between 1950 and 1985, nearly all industrialised countries — and several others — liberalised their abortion laws.  In 1994, 179 governments signed the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, signalling their commitment to prevent unsafe abortion. Since this important milestone, more than 30 countries worldwide have liberalised their abortion laws — while only a handful have tightened legal restrictions on abortion."

The organisation adds that while "countries in the Global North and central and eastern Asia generally have the most liberal abortion laws ... countries in the Global South have generally adopted restrictive abortion laws." 

The majority of countries in "Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and southern Asia have severe abortion laws. Yet there are important outliers to this trend, such as the liberal laws in Uruguay, South Africa, Zambia, Cambodia and Vietnam," it adds.

Here is a snapshot of the global situation:

Total ban

Predominantly Catholic Malta is the only European Union country to totally ban abortion, imposing jail terms of between 18 months and three years if the law is broken.

Abortion is also banned in Andorra, the Vatican and San Marino, which are in Europe but not the European Union.

Globally there are total bans in Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador,  Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, Laos, Madagascar, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Philippines, Palau, Senegal and Suriname.

In El Salvador, the courts have handed down lengthy jail sentences, some of up to 30 years, to women judged to have resorted to abortion.


At present, many countries allow abortions in cases where the mother's life is deemed to be in danger. 

A partial list includes: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Myanmar, Paraguay, South Sudan, Syria, Uganda, Venezuela, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen.

On May 22 a decades-old abortion ban went to South Korea's supreme court for review.

Latin America

It is legal in Cuba and Uruguay and in Mexico City, but otherwise far more restricted.

In Brazil the law only allows terminations in cases of rape, risk to the life of the mother or if the foetus is missing part or all of the brain.

Last September Chile lifted a strict ban, which had been in force for decades, when then-president Michelle Bachelet signed into law legislation to decriminalise abortion in certain cases. The Constitutional Court upheld the legislation ending the Andean nation's absolute ban on abortions, permitting the procedure when a woman's life is in danger, when a foetus is not viable and in cases of rape.

In Argentina, the lower house Chamber of Deputies approved on June 14 a bill sent to the Senate that would legalise abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and provide for conscientious objection for practitioners, but not for hospitals. In this Wednesday's vote, August 8, senators will decide on the version of the text adopted by the deputies. If a majority of the 72 senators approve the text, abortion will be legalised in the country. 

Pressure for change

Generally, women from Europe and North America benefit from the most liberal legislation, with some notable exceptions. 

Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, abortion is illegal in the province of Northern Ireland except when the mother's life is in danger. On June 7 Britain's Supreme Court said it would have declared Northern Ireland's abortion laws incompatible with human rights legislation if not for a procedural technicality in what pro-choice campaigners hailed as a victory.

In late May, more than 66 percent of voters in traditionally Catholic Ireland voted by a landslide to ditch its strict abortion laws, where abortion is only allowed if a mother's life in at risk, in a referendum. New legislation is now being drawn up.

In EU member Poland, which has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the bloc, a new bill submitted my ultra-conservatives would restrict abortion even further. The bill sparked mass demonstrations across the country.

In the United States abortion was legalised nationwide in 1973, but this has been under pressure since Donald Trump became president, with some Republicans seeking restrictions.The US state of Iowa in early May signed into law a ban on abortions once a foetal heartbeat is detected, which occurs as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The Midwestern state now has the strictest legislation on abortion in the US.

(Sources: Guttmacher Institute, World Health Organization, Center for Reproductive Rights, AFP)



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