Abortion is as controversial abroad as it is in the United States. Many governments struggle to strike a balance between the rights of pregnant women and the rights of unborn fetuses. As the following summary of abortion laws and practices in 30 countries shows, this often leads to complex policies governing when and under what circumstances a woman may legally have an abortion.
In this research package
Americans and Abortion
An overview of the abortion debate in America.
Abortion and the Supreme Court
The constitutional dimensions of the abortion debate.
Public Opinion on Abortion
Polls conducted in 2009 found fewer Americans expressing support for abortion than in previous years.
Abortion Around the World
Abortion is as controversial abroad as it is in the United States.
Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Abortion
A breakdown of 17 major religious groups’ views on abortion.
Since 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that existing abortion restrictions were unconstitutional, abortion has been legal for any reason at any stage of pregnancy. Provincial health insurance plans cover the cost of abortions performed in hospitals but do not consistently provide funding for abortions performed in free-standing clinics.
Access to abortion services in Mexico varies from state to state. Some states allow abortion only in instances when the mother’s life or physical health is at stake, in pregnancies involving possible fetal abnormalities or in cases of rape. In April 2007, however, Mexico City became the first municipality to legalize abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (the first trimester). The Roman Catholic Church and abortion opponents challenged the new law in courts, but in August 2008 the Supreme Court voted to uphold the new law. Thousands of women reportedly have traveled to the nation’s capital to receive abortions since the change was enacted.
Abortion is legal in Brazil only in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. Under federal regulation, hospitals require a formal determination that a pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest before performing an abortion. Many women in Brazil illegally use the drug Cytotec to induce miscarriage, and the government estimates that more than 200,000 Brazilian women are hospitalized annually as a result of botched abortions.
In 1967, the Chilean Health Code formally legalized abortion when it was necessary to save the mother’s life. The measure was reversed in 1989 by then-President Augusto Pinochet, who made abortion illegal in all circumstances. Pinochet’s law is still in effect. In late 2006, President Michelle Bachelet authorized government distribution of the morning-after contraception pill to women ages 14 and older; but in April 2008, Chile’s Constitutional Tribunal suspended the program.
Abortion was illegal in all circumstances until May 2006, when Colombia’s highest court ruled that the procedure can be performed in cases in which the mother’s life or physical health is in danger, in cases of rape or incest, or in pregnancies involving fatal or life-threatening fetal abnormalities. This decision has been the object of strong protests by abortion opponents but remains in effect. On Aug. 25, 2006, the first legal abortion was performed on an 11-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather. According to the government, more than 300,000 illegal abortions are performed annually in Colombia, where abortion is the third leading cause of maternal mortality.
Abortion is illegal in El Salvador in all cases, even when doctors consider the procedure to be medically necessary. Moreover, the government vigorously enforces the ban.
In October 2006, the Nicaraguan National Assembly effectively banned abortion in all circumstances after voting to disallow exceptions to its already restrictive abortion laws. Previously, abortion was legal only in cases of rape or cases in which three doctors agreed that the mother’s life was in danger. There were six legal abortions in 2002, the last year for which figures are available. Health experts estimate the number of illegal abortions in Nicaragua to be more than 30,000 a year.
Although a 1995 law makes abortion illegal, neither doctors nor women are prosecuted if the mother is a victim of rape and the procedure is performed within 12 weeks of conception. A similar waiver exists in the first trimester for cases in which the mother has received counseling to encourage carrying her baby to term but still wants an abortion. After the first trimester, abortion is available only to preserve the life or mental or physical health of the mother. State insurance generally does not pay for the procedure except in cases of financial need.
Abortion is freely available in Great Britain due to a broad interpretation of the Abortion Act of 1967, which permits abortion for a variety of reasons if certified by two physicians. Within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, these reasons may include: to save the life of the mother, to protect her physical or mental health, to terminate pregnancies involving fetal abnormality, or for social or economic reasons. In cases in which the mother’s life or health is “gravely threatened” or there is significant risk for fetal abnormality, there is no time limit on when an abortion may be performed. Currently, the British Parliament is considering legislation that would eliminate the requirement of two doctors’ approval before an abortion can be performed. It is estimated that about 200,000 abortions are performed in Great Britain each year.
Since 1986, abortion has been freely available in Greece during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In cases involving a minor, or in instances of rape or incest, the procedure is legal through the 19th week of pregnancy. Abortions also can be obtained through the 24th week of pregnancy in cases of fetal abnormality. Despite liberal abortion laws, the advertising of abortion services is illegal.
The Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861 (originally enacted by the United Kingdom but parts of which are still active in Ireland) banned abortion in all circumstances. Later court decisions established an exception to save the mother’s life. In 1983, a constitutional amendment strengthened the country’s abortion restrictions by establishing a fetus’s right to life, equating it with a woman’s right to life. The lack of access to abortion garnered attention in 1992 when a 14-year-old rape victim sought to travel to Great Britain to terminate her pregnancy. She was permitted to travel to Great Britain for this purpose only after the Irish Supreme Court ruled that requiring the girl to have the child might lead her to commit suicide. According to experts, each year more than 7,000 Irish women travel to Great Britain to receive abortions.
Abortion law in Spain legalizes the procedure at any point during pregnancy in cases in which the mother’s life or physical or mental health is at risk. Abortion is also allowed within 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape and within 22 weeks of pregnancy in cases of fetal impairment. In 1991, Spain’s high court set a case-by-case precedent for determining whether abortion could be sanctioned. In 2006, nearly 100,000 abortions reportedly were performed in Spain. Though the government will pay for an abortion, approximately 60% of women choose to pay for the procedure themselves for reasons of convenience and confidentiality. Recently, Spain’s abortion laws became highly politicized after church groups accused private clinics of performing illegal abortions in Barcelona and Madrid. While the country’s socialist party advocates for more liberal abortion laws, opponents argue that abortion is already too accessible.
Since 1974, abortion has been legal in Sweden in all circumstances within the first 18 weeks of pregnancy. After this point, abortions are only permissible to save the life or physical health of the mother, or if approval is granted by the National Board of Health and Welfare. To date, abortion has not been a politically controversial issue in Sweden.
In 1955, when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, abortion became freely available during the first trimester of pregnancy. In 1982, it was legalized within the first 28 weeks of pregnancy when required for broad health reasons. Five years later, abortions within the first 28 weeks were legalized for certain nonmedical reasons, including imprisonment of the mother, imprisonment of her husband, or divorce or rape. Under the same 1987 law, abortion in other cases is sanctioned if approved by a medical commission.
According to a law passed in 1993, abortion is legal in Poland throughout pregnancy to preserve the life or physical health the mother. During the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, abortion is also allowed in circumstances of rape, incest or fetal abnormality. In March 2007, the Council of Europe ordered Poland to compensate a Polish woman who had suffered a retinal hemorrhage after being denied an abortion despite doctors’ knowledge that carrying the baby to term would jeopardize her health. One month later, the Polish parliament rejected a constitutional amendment that would protect the “right to life from the moment of conception.” The Council of Europe has ordered all 46 member states, including Poland, to ensure that abortions are available in countries where they are legal.
Russia reportedly leads the world in the total number of abortions performed each year, which currently exceeds the country’s annual number of live births. Abortion is freely available during the first 12 weeks of gestation as well as at any point during the pregnancy in cases involving a risk to the life or health of the mother or severe fetal abnormalities. Since 2003, abortion has also been legal between the 12th and 22nd weeks of pregnancy on certain social grounds, including imprisonment, rape, or spousal disability or death.
Slovenia’s abortion laws stem from a statute enacted in the former Yugoslavia in 1977 that made abortion available through 10 weeks into a pregnancy. Abortion was also allowed in cases that threatened the mother’s life or cases that involved severe fetal abnormalities. The 1977 law is still in effect, and abortions are free under Slovenia’s health care system. In 2006, abortion came under the national spotlight when the minister of labor, family and social affairs, as part of a broader push to increase the country’s declining birth rate, proposed that the government subsidize only those abortions that were medically necessary to save the life of the mother. The minister was promptly asked to resign and the proposal was dropped.
Abortion is legal in Nigeria only to preserve the mother’s life, but health specialists report that large numbers of procedures are performed both in the predominately Christian South and the predominately Muslim North. In 2008, the Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics of Nigeria reported that 11% of maternal deaths in Nigeria are caused by unsafe abortions.
Legislation based on an 1810 penal code makes abortion illegal in Senegal except to save the mother’s life. For a woman to qualify for an abortion, two physicians must concur that her life is in danger and one of these physicians must be on a court-approved list. These restrictions have attracted the attention of the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has expressed concern over the health risks posed to women by the lack of access to legal abortions.
Since 1996, abortion has been available without restrictions in South Africa within the first trimester of pregnancy if the mother’s physical or mental health is at risk, if the pregnancy compromises the mother’s social or economic situation, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. After the 20th week of pregnancy, abortion is available if the life of the mother or health of the fetus is at risk. In early 2008, the South African Parliament voted to relax abortion restrictions even further, establishing 24-hour abortion facilities and allowing nurses – not just midwives and doctors – to carry out the procedure. President Thabo Mbeki had yet to sign the bill into law when he resigned in September 2008.
The country’s abortion law was changed in 1977 to allow the procedure when the mother’s physical health is at risk, when the pregnancy is a result of “unlawful intercourse” such as rape or incest, when the fetus is at risk for physical or mental defects, or when the mother’s life is endangered. Formal authorization and certification is required in all of these circumstances, a process that some abortion rights advocates say drives many women to seek illegal abortions.
Compared with other Muslim countries, Tunisia has very liberal abortion policies. Abortions are available during the first trimester and after 12 weeks when the mother’s physical or mental health is at risk and in cases of fetal abnormalities; however, in more traditional communities, doctors may be less willing to perform abortions in situations that are considered taboo, such as pregnancies resulting from extramarital affairs or premarital sex. As a result, women often resort to illegal abortions.
The Egyptian Penal Code of 1937 bans abortion in all circumstances, but criminal law allows flexibility on grounds of “necessity.” Physicians rely on that principle to justify performing an abortion when they believe the mother’s life or health is in danger or in cases of fetal abnormality. A committee of physicians must agree that the abortion is acceptable within the confines of the law.
Abortion has been illegal in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although there are no explicit exceptions to this prohibition, Iranian law generally allows acts that are performed to save the life of a person; thus, it is commonly understood that abortion is illegal except when necessary to save the mother’s life. In 2005, the Iranian parliament passed a measure allowing abortions within the first four months of pregnancy in cases of fetal impairment that would result in economic burden; the measure was ultimately blocked by the Iranian Guardian Council.
A 1977 law made abortion legal in Israel to save the mother’s life or to preserve her mental or physical health. Abortion is also allowed in cases of rape, incest or fetal impairment, as well as in cases involving a wide range of difficult social circumstances. In 1979, those social circumstances were eliminated as an explicit reason for abortion, but leniency within the law still exists. For instance, being unmarried or being under the age of 17 or over the age of 40 constitutes a social circumstance in which an abortion is allowed. All abortions must be authorized by a medical committee composed of a social worker and two physicians.
A 1983 law makes abortion legal in Turkey in all circumstances within 10 weeks of pregnancy. After 10 weeks, abortion is legal if the mother’s life is at risk, if her physical or mental health is in danger or if her pregnancy involves fetal abnormalities. Parental- and spousal-consent requirements are in effect, but they can be waived if the risk to the mother’s life constitutes an immediate danger.
Abortion is virtually freely available in China, and there are no defined time limits for access to the procedure. Although sex-selective abortion is prohibited, critics say that China’s one-child-per-family policy encourages the widespread abortion of female fetuses by couples intent on having a son. Today in China there are an estimated 120 boys born for every 100 girls. Human-rights groups have long accused the Chinese government of condoning mandatory abortions as a means of controlling population growth. The practice is believed to be less common today than it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the one-child policy was more strictly enforced.
Abortion is available in India during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy in cases in which the mother’s life or physical or mental health is at risk, in cases of rape or fetal abnormality, or for social or economic reasons. However, to obtain an abortion between the 12th and 20th weeks of pregnancy, two medical practitioners must agree that the procedure is necessary. In 1994, to combat sex-selective abortion of female fetuses, the Indian government outlawed the practice of using prenatal testing to reveal the sex of the child. But such abortions are still widely practiced and rarely prosecuted.
Japan’s Eugenic Protection Law, passed in 1948, promoted liberal policies on abortion and sterilization with the intent of fostering a genetically healthy population. In 1996, new legislation omitted all references to eugenics and established regulations making abortion legal within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy to save the mother’s life or to protect her physical health. Abortion is also allowed in cases of rape and for economic or social reasons.
Abortion has been illegal in the Philippines since 1930, when it was first criminalized. The only acceptable reason for an abortion is when the mother’s life is in danger, in which case permission for the abortion must be obtained from a board of medical professionals. The 1975 Child and Youth Welfare Code established that a person has inherent dignity from the moment of conception. The Constitution of 1987 reinforces this ruling, requiring that the state “equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception.”
This report was written by Michelle Ralston and Elizabeth Podrebarac, Research Assistants, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.