International Abortion Law

Given the recent political and legal turmoil surrounding the Dobbs decision, it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that abortion is a topic which affects people across the globe. Countries around the world adopt abortion laws reflective of the underlying culture, opinions, and religious beliefs of their citizens. Recognizing international perspectives on abortion law can help to broaden one's understanding of the issue and place the current debate over the Dobbs decision into a larger context.

 

Systematic analysis of international abortion law is complex and goes beyond a mere listing of statues by country. Grouping countries regionally also is inadequate, as neighboring countries may have disparate abortion laws despite their geographic proximity. A more thorough account will look at the history underlying each country's abortion laws and examine how that country's history overlaps with other countries.

Supreme People's Court of Vietnam located in Ha Noi

 Today, the most restrictive countries may only provide exceptions when the life of the pregnant individual is in jeopardy, if at all. Other countries allow exceptions for a broad range of physical concerns and/or in cases of rape or incest. The most progressive countries took away bans altogether, or provide exceptions not limited to health factors, such as economic or social factors or upon request without reason. As a general trend, almost all countries provide some exception to bans on abortion, and these exceptions are growing broader over time with a greater acceptance of abortion [2].

Praying In a Church

"Safe, legal, and free abortion is now law"

- Alberto Fernández

In recent decades, there has been  push for international cooperation in establishing fundamental reproductive rights. The Maputo Protocol, developed by the African Union which is composed of 55 member countries in Africa, went into effect in 2005 and and held that abortion was a fundamental right in certain cases such as incest or fatal fetal anomalies [3]. Similarly, in September of 2022, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution which held that abortion is a human right. Although these measures were met with criticism from some member countries, they marked a step towards global recognition of abortion as a right of pregnant persons.

"Abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected"

-Emmanuel Macron

Supreme Court of India

Historically, abortion was outlawed in almost every country until, in the twentieth century, progressive reform took place which paved the road for a more tolerant perspective. There are three systems which account for the vast majority of legal frameworks across the globe: a common law heritage such as the legal system of the U.K. and the U.S., civil law which characterizes parts of Europe and Northern Africa, and Islamic law which is found in countries with a high percentage of Islamic citizens [1]. It is worthy to note that many of the implementations of these systems of law began to take form during the period of colonial expansion, the effects of which can be reflected in abortion law.

French Courthouse

Abortion law also highlights the disparity between developing and developed countries. Developing countries are more likely to have tougher restrictions on abortion access while developed countries are more likely have a liberal stance on abortion policy. One additional layer that complicates this fact is that pregnant persons in developing countries may not have the means to seek a safe abortion even if it is legal, increasing the risk of attempting an unsafe abortion. 

Underlying many of the restrictive abortion laws is the prevalence of religious beliefs which hold that fetal and embryonic life is sacred, and that abortion destroys this human life. For example, many Latin American countries as well as some European countries such as Poland, contain a large population of Catholic citizens who hold such beliefs concerning fetal life. It comes as no surprise that these beliefs are reflected in the law through tougher restrictions than in more secular countries.

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Source: Center for Reproductive Rights [4]

Below are six countries which are described in further detail as examples of the variation in abortion law across the world. 

Japan

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Abortion is currently legal in Japan and can be performed until 22 weeks of pregnancy for health, social, or economic reasons [5]. The procedure must be performed by a doctor, and no abortion-inducing drugs are currently approved within the country, although licensed doctors may import select drugs. In Japan, the person seeking an abortion must obtain consent from their partner, except in cases of abuse or other complicating factors. Japan was one of the first countries to legalize abortion, shortly following World War 2 as part of a eugenics program; however, today's law is updated to reflect a shift from that movement.

Argentina

Abortion was only recently legalized in Argentina, with President Alberto Fernández signing a law permitting abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy on January 14, 2021. Previously, exceptions were only made for cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the pregnant individual [6]. Support for abortion rights has grown in Argentina over the last several decades.

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Ethiopia

Abortion was legalized in Ethiopia in 2005 under the Maputo Protocol. Pregnant persons may terminate their pregnancy as a result of rape, incest, to save the life of the pregnant individual, if the pregnant individual is a minor, or if the fetus has a severe and incurable abnormality. Notably, a majority in Ethiopia deemed abortion never justifiable [7]. 

Australia

Abortion rights vary in Australia according to jurisdiction. Surgical abortion procedures are available and legal in all jurisdictions until a gestational term limit set by the jurisdiction. Tasmania has the most restrictive term limit at 16 weeks while the other jurisdictions set the limit anywhere from 20 weeks to not having a term limit at all. After the term limit, most jurisdictions require two doctors to find sufficient reason to continue with the abortion procedure [8].

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India

Abortion has been legal in India since the 1970s; however, there has been a preference to selectively abort female fetuses, affecting the sex ratio and prompting government officials to crack down on abortion [9]. Recent laws and amendments have made it legal for all pregnant persons to obtain an abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy [10]. 

Additional Resources

References

[1] Berer M. (2017). Abortion Law and Policy Around the World: In Search of Decriminalization. Health and human rights, 19(1), 13–27.

[2] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014). Abortion Policies and Reproductive Health around the World (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.14.XIII.11).

[3] African Union, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, 11 July 2003, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3f4b139d4.html [accessed 9 November 2022]

[4] The world's abortion laws. Center for Reproductive Rights. (2022, September 29). Retrieved November 1, 2022, from https://reproductiverights.org/maps/worlds-abortion-laws/

[5]  "母体保護法の施行について" [On Enforcement of the Maternal Health Act]. Act No. 122 of 25 September 1996 (in Japanese). Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

[6] Goldberg, J. (2021, June 2). In historic victory, Argentina legalizes abortion. Center for Reproductive Rights. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from https://reproductiverights.org/historic-vote-argentina-legalize-abortion/

[7] Ewnetu, D. B., Thorsen, V. C., Solbakk, J. H., & Magelssen, M. (2020). Still a moral dilemma: how Ethiopian professionals providing abortion come to terms with conflicting norms and demands. BMC medical ethics, 21(1), 16. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-020-0458-7

[8] Abortion law in Australia. Home – Parliament of Australia. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp9899/99rp01

[9] Chao, F., Guilmoto, C. Z., KC, S., & Ombao, H. (2020). Probabilistic projection of the sex ratio at birth and missing female births by State and Union Territory in India. PloS one, 15(8), e0236673.

[10] BBC. (2022, September 29). Abortion: India Supreme Court says amended law to cover single women too. BBC News. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-63071113

This page was written by graduate student Trevor McCarthy

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Trevor McCarthy is a first year graduate student in the Bioethics Master's program.

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