October 6, 2015

How abortion is regulated around the world

The regulation of abortion may vary widely from country to country, but nearly all nations – 96% – allow women to terminate their pregnancies in order to save their lives, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of 196 countries based on 2013 United Nations data. Indeed, only six countries do not allow women to receive abortions under any circumstances.

About a quarter of the countries in the analysis (50 countries, or 26%) only allow abortions to save the life of the mother. An additional 82 nations (42%) allow abortions when the mother’s life is at risk as well as for at least one other specific reason, such as to preserve a woman’s physical or mental health, in cases of rape or incest, because of fetal impairment or for social or economic reasons. And three-in-ten countries (58) allow abortions on request or for any reason, although many of these states do not allow women to terminate their pregnancies after a certain point (e.g., 20 weeks).

Explore an interactive map of worldwide abortion policies

The six countries that do not allow abortions under any circumstances are the Latin American nations of Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua as well as Vatican City (represented in the U.N. by the Holy See) and Malta, both of which are in Europe.

The Vatican and Malta are exceptions to the norm in Europe, where about three-quarters of countries allow abortions for any reason (73%). France, Germany, Greece and Russia are among the 32 European nations where this is the case.

In a few European states (Ireland, Andorra and San Marino), abortion is only permitted if the mother’s life is at risk. Ireland is the only country in Europe with a constitutional ban on abortion outside of saving a mother’s life; women who receive an illegal abortion in the country face up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

In Latin America, most people believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report. Only in Uruguay, which has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the region, does at least half the public (54%) voice support for legal abortion in all or most cases. In Chile, public opinion is divided on the issue; 47% say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 49% say it should be illegal in all or most circumstances. Elsewhere, clear majorities – ranging from 60% in Argentina to 95% in Paraguay – oppose making abortion lawful. (Abortion is legal for any reason in Cuba, which was not included in the survey.)

Although all countries in the Middle East-North Africa region allow abortions if the mother’s life is at risk, only four out of 18 permit abortions in cases of rape or incest, and just two (Bahrain and Tunisia) allow abortion for any reason. Similar trends are seen in sub-Saharan Africa, where 98% of countries allow abortions to save the mother’s life, but only 33% permit abortion in cases of rape or incest and just two, Cape Verde and South Africa, allow elective abortions for any reason. (Percentages for sub-Saharan Africa could be slightly higher, but U.N. figures for South Sudan were unavailable.)

A third of countries in the Asia-Pacific region allow abortion for any reason, including Australia, China and Turkey.

Topics: Abortion, Foreign Affairs and Policy

  1. Photo of Angelina E. Theodorou

    is a research analyst focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Aleksandra Sandstrom

    is a copy editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.