Changes Reflect Continuation of Worldwide Trend Toward Greater Access
and Broader Recognition of Human Rights
In the 10 years since the last global review of abortion policies, 16 countries have increased the number of grounds on which abortions may be legally performed, while two have eliminated all such grounds, according to a study released today. An additional 10 countries maintained their existing grounds for abortion, but adopted changes to increase access to abortion, including decentralizing the approval of facilities where abortions may be obtained, expanding the types of providers who may perform the procedures and increasing the range of available methods to include medication abortion. According to authors Reed Boland of the Harvard School of Public Health and Laura Katzive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, the legislative and regulatory changes in the countries included in both the 1998 and the 2008 review reflect a continuing global trend toward liberalization of abortion policies.
An important driving force behind this trend has been the growing concern among regional and international human rights bodies about the negative impact of abortion restrictions on women’s health and well-being. In 2003, the African Union adopted a protocol to guarantee the right to abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, or a pregnancy’s threat to the mental and physical health of the pregnant woman. As of 2007, 21 countries had ratified or signed on to the protocol.
At the regional level, some of the most notable changes in abortion policies occurred in Latin America. In 2006, Colombia’s constitutional court struck down the country’s blanket prohibition of abortion to permit termination of pregnancy when a woman’s life or health is endangered, as well as in cases of rape, incest or severe fetal impairment. In 2007, Mexico City changed its law to permit abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks’ gestation. Five additional Mexican states also added grounds on which abortion is permitted or not punishable. Two countries, however, moved in the opposite direction: In 1998 in El Salvador, all grounds for legal abortion were eliminated with the entry into force of a new penal code. Nicaragua similarly removed all grounds for abortion in 1996.
Procedural and legal barriers have also increased in eastern and central Europe since 1998, though the region’s laws remain among the most liberal in the world. Hungary and Latvia have established requirements that make obtaining an abortion more onerous, such as parental consent for women younger than 16, judgmental counseling and waiting periods. Though abortion on the grounds of social or demographic characteristics in the second trimester remains legal in Russia, the country defined these indications more narrowly, eliminating, among other grounds for the procedure, having a low income, being unmarried or having too many children.
In contrast, all changes in the past 10 years in East and South Asia and the Pacific were toward liberalization. In 2002, Nepal’s law was changed to permit abortion on request during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and thereafter in cases of rape, incest or fetal impairment or if there is a threat to the woman’s life or physical or mental health. In addition, two territories and one state in Australia liberalized their policies.
The authors note that the trend toward liberalization of abortion laws should not mask the serious threats to reproductive rights that are present in many parts of the world. However, they believe this trend will be hard to reverse, particularly as more countries continue to recognize the impact of abortion restrictions on women’s human rights.
“Developments in Laws on Induced Abortion: 1998–2007” appears in the September 2008 issue of International Family Planning Perspectives.