The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights Jun. 24, removing the constitutional right in the U.S. to terminate a pregnancy. After nearly half a century of constitutional protections for abortion, the ruling fundamentally reshapes access to reproductive health care across the U.S., leaving each state free to determine the legality of the procedure.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group, 26 of America’s 50 states are expected move immediately to crack down on clinics providing abortions.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade gave women in the U.S. an absolute right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and limited rights beyond then. While abortion is legal in some form in every state under Roe, abortion access has been eroded over the years in more than a dozen states. Texas, for example, passed a law in 2021 allowing residents to sue clinics and doctors for carrying out an abortion after six weeks. In Mississippi—the state at the center of the Supreme Court case—most abortions are banned after 15 weeks.
The rollback of abortion rights in the U.S. has been mirrored in many other nations globally, where the rise of pro-life movements have coincided with radical political or cultural shifts. In other countries, abortion rights activists have succeeded in pushing for less restrictive laws as part of a broader fight for women’s rights.
Here is a look at countries where abortion is banned, restricted, or has recently been legalized.
Countries where abortion is illegal
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization, there are 24 countries in the world where abortion is completely prohibited. These include Andorra and Malta in Europe, El Salvador and Honduras in Central America, Senegal and Egypt in Africa, and the Philippines and Laos in Asia. Some 90 million (5%) women of reproductive age live in countries that prohibit abortion altogether.
Activists and campaigners in many of these countries continue to fight to ease abortion restrictions. The hardline laws in El Salvador, which were introduced in 1998 after campaigning from conservative sectors of the Catholic Church, have led to dozens of women being found guilty of “aggravated homicide,” even in cases of miscarriage. In March, thousands of Salvadoran women marched to demand that the ban be eased to allow abortions in cases of rape, when the fetus is not viable, or if the woman’s life is at risk.
Countries with significant restrictions to abortion access
More than 50 countries and regions permit abortions only when the woman’s health is at risk. (Some refer only to physical health, while others include mental health.) These include Libya, Iran, Indonesia, Venezuela and Nigeria. Others have exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or fetal abnormality.
In Brazil, for example, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, risks to the life of the mother, or when the fetus has anencephaly—missing part of the brain or skull. In these cases, the woman needs approval from a doctor and at least three other clinical experts. In August 2020, under President Bolsonaro’s far-right government, a Health Ministry regulation was introduced that requires medical professionals to collect evidence and report to the police anyone who seeks legal termination of a pregnancy after rape—which Human Rights Watch suggests is to dissuade rape survivors.
In January 2021, a near-total ban on abortion was introduced in Poland, only allowing the procedure in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk. The ban removed the exception for an abortion in cases of severe and irreversible fetal abnormalities—the grounds for which 98% of abortions in Poland were carried out in 2019. Mass demonstrations broke out in Poland in November 2021 following the death of a woman at 22 weeks pregnant from sepsis, after her family said that life-saving treatment was delayed because of the ban. This month, the first pro-choice activist to be charged under the new law went on trial for providing a pregnant woman with tablets to induce a miscarriage.
Countries with broader access to abortion
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, in countries from Japan to India to Canada, as well as most of Europe, more than half of women of reproductive age can safely access abortion either on request or based on broad social or economic grounds. The Jun. 24 overturning of the Roe v. Wade ruling in the U.S. means that thirteen states that have enacted “trigger laws,” designed to ban all or nearly all abortions will go into effect, some immediately, others over the coming hours. More bans are expected to come soon and at least nine other states have laws on the books they will likely try to put into effect.
Seventy-two countries, including France and Germany, allow for abortion subject to gestational time limits—the most common being 12 weeks. Even in these countries, there are often a variety of exceptions that allow abortions to take place later. In the U.K. for example, there is a 24-week limit on abortion, but if the fetus has a disability such as Down’s Syndrome, the pregnancy can be terminated right up until birth.
While pro-life movements in countries like Poland and the U.S. have successfully lobbied for rollbacks in reproductive rights, other nations are making strides towards greater freedoms. In the past 18 months, Colombia, Argentina, and Mexico—traditionally conservative Catholic countries in Latin America—decriminalized abortions following waves of protests and campaigning by women’s rights and pro-choice groups. The most recent, Colombia, set the legal gestational limit at 24 weeks of pregnancy in February.
The changes have inspired other pro-choice movements in the region—dubbed the “green wave” for the colors worn by campaigners. Chile could become the first Latin American country to have the right to abortion enshrined in the country’s constitution, pending the results of a vote later this year.
And in Europe, Ireland drew worldwide attention after a May 2018 popular referendum that led to abortion being legalized up to 12 weeks, and limited circumstances beyond then. Before the change, thousands of Irish women would typically travel to nearby England for the procedure every year, according to the Belfast-based journalism project Detail Data.
More than a year later in October 2019 neighboring Northern Ireland became the last nation in the U.K. to decriminalize abortion. Despite the procedure now being legal on request up until 12 weeks in most cases, and up to 24 weeks if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s health, the country has yet to establish sufficient state-run abortion services. The majority of those that currently exist are provided by charities. This means that women who are more than 10 weeks pregnant still need to travel elsewhere in the U.K. for the procedure and, although the cost of the trip is covered by the state, the pandemic has made it more difficult for those women to travel. In March, U.K. lawmakers in Westminster began a legal process to compel their counterparts in the devolved nation to provide adequate state-run access.
In 2020, New Zealand decriminalized abortion and extended the legal period to 20 weeks of pregnancy. Prior to that, two doctors were required to approve an abortion—and they would only do so if there was a “serious danger” to the woman’s health.
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