The World

How Do America’s Abortion Laws Compare to the Rest of the World’s?

Center for Reproductive Rights

The results of this week’s midterm elections in the United States were ambiguous when it comes to the question of abortion access. The Republican wave brought a swath of new anti-abortion lawmakers into Congress, governor’s mansions, and state legislatures, but voters—even in some pretty conservative states—by and large rejected controversial “fetal personhood” amendments.

But how do American abortion laws compare to those in other countries? The map above, from a new report from the Center for Reproductive Rights (full size here), gives a simplified but useful snapshot.

In red countries, abortion is completely banned or only allowed to save the mother’s life. In orange, it’s allowed to preserve the mother’s health. In tan, exceptions can be made based on socioeconomic status. In green, access to abortion is not restricted by reason.

The divide is fairly obvious. With a few glaring exceptions like Ireland and Poland, wealthy industrialized countries and formerly communist nations—the First and Second worlds, to use the outdated Cold War terminology—have liberal abortion laws. Developing countries do not. (Another exception to that broad trend: Russia has added a slew of new restrictions on abortion, justified in part by concerns about the country’s low birthrate.)

The overall global trend has been toward liberalization. In Africa, for instance, several countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Rwanda have in recent years amended or clarified their laws to allow access to abortion in cases where the mother’s health may be in danger.

This hasn’t been the case in Latin America, which CRR says is “the only region in the world in which more than one country has amended its penal code to further restrict access to abortion services” in the past 20 years. Some of these restrictions are extremely draconian. In 1998, El Salvador eliminated all exceptions to its abortion laws, including in cases of rape and when the mother’s life is in danger. Nicaragua did the same in 2006. El Salvador and the Dominican Republic have both adopted constitutional measures that recognize conception as the beginning of life.

The exception is Uruguay, which in 2012 legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This was one of a number of liberal reforms, including the legalization of gay marriage and marijuana, pushed through by President Jose Mujica.*

First-trimester abortion is legal for any reason in Mexico City, but 16 other Mexican states have passed constitutional amendments banning it. Despite two recent highly publicized cases of women dying in illegal abortion in Brazil, the topic was barely discussed in the recent presidential election.

The region’s lack of liberalization around abortion access—and further restrictions in some cases—is interesting to consider given its relatively rapid pace of transformation on gay rights. That discrepancy, as my colleague Mark Joseph Stern recently pointed out, mirrors what’s happening in the United States. 

*Correction, Nov. 6, 2014: This post originally misstated that Uruguayan President Jose Mujica is running for re-election. He is constitutionally barred from seeking another term.