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As Abortion Rights Expand in Some Regions, Others Absorb Setbacks



Pro-abortion rally in Spain.
As many countries liberalize abortion laws, a strong force is prevailing against such rights in certain countries. Here, a pro-abortion rally in Spain in 2013. The sign, translated in English, says: Maternity, Free and Desired. FLICKR/POPICINIO

Even as more countries have expanded the rights of women to safe, legal abortions in the last 20 years, some countries — particularly certain areas in the United States and in Central America — have rolled back such rights with equal intensity by imposing tighter restrictions.

The issue of abortion, embedded in the universal quest for women’s reproductive rights, also remains hotly contested in the current negotiations at the United Nations on the sustainable development goals being formulated for the post-2015 era. For every setback, a step forward appears to be ready: on Sept. 28, for example, a global “action” day is planned for London to support decriminalization of abortion.

The news is that more than 30 countries have liberalized their laws to increase women’s rights to abortion services — a trend that has shown resilience in improving women’s lives, including significantly reducing rates of maternal mortality from unsafe abortions — says a new report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is based in New York and focused on the legality of abortion rights.

Currently, 74 countries, or more than 60 percent of the world’s population, allow abortion without restriction “as to reason or on broad grounds,” the report says.

The report, “Abortion Worldwide: 20 Years of Reform,” was released at a press briefing convened at the Ford Foundation headquarters, near the UN. It documents the global trajectory to better access to abortion since the adoption of the International Conference on Population and Development’s agreement in 1994, which affirmed reproductive rights as a human right and strengthened nations’ commitments to bettering women’s health in all dimensions.

Accompanying the report is the center’s World’s Abortion Laws map, updated to provide new comparison information on abortion laws in 199 countries. It is a digital gem, color-coded for readers to easily scan the status of abortion rights worldwide, enhanced with notations on pertinent laws in every country.

The country with the least restrictions — that is, no penal code is attached to abortion — is Canada, says Katherine Mayall, a legal fellow for advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights. She is responsible for updating the map.

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Despite the expansion of abortion rights and services throughout the world, the stubborn persistency of some countries, including El Salvador, a heavily Roman Catholic country, and Japan, to restrict abortion legally has stymied the advancement of women’s rights universally. Japan has about a dozen restrictions, including spousal approval. Nevertheless, the country has loosened its stance.

“Although Japan has restricted the grounds under which abortion is permitted, these restrictions were minimal and were part of reforms aimed at moving the country away from its historically strong legal support for eugenics,” Mayall said in an email to PassBlue. She added that the previous law authorized abortion in numerous circumstances that were based on eugenics, including when the woman, her spouse or a close relative had a hereditary or psychological disorder.

“The removal of these grounds for abortion were not necessarily intended to restrict reproductive rights but to modernize the law and remove outdated provisions,” she said. This overhaul also included the repeal of other eugenics measures unrelated to abortion, such as repealing another part of the same law that authorized involuntary sterilization of women with disabilities.

Mayall said the map showed that there are 66 countries that allow abortion only to save a woman’s life or prohibit abortion altogether; 28 of those countries do not explicitly include any exceptions for abortion where pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s life.

“There are three countries that used to have life exceptions which have since been removed — El Salvador, Nicaragua and Malta,” she said. “Due to the removal of the life exception from their penal codes, we consider these three countries to ban abortion altogether, including where pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s life.”

The report notes, for example, other “burdensome restrictions on women’s access to abortion in countries like the United States,” where abortion services may be constitutionally enshrined, but more than 200 laws hurting a woman’s access to abortion have been enacted since 2011, bowing to political pressure for the most part from certain religious groups. Although the US Supreme Court has established that states cannot limit abortion before viability, in the last 20 years, there have been numerous amendments and additions to state abortion laws throughout the country.

Several states have passed laws and policies to increase women’s access to abortion services, such as expanding the types of providers that can perform abortions and creating buffer zones to secure women’s safe passage into reproductive health care centers. But many more have approved restrictions on abortion, including laws banning abortion before the point of viability; requirements that women receive counseling, undergo mandatory ultrasounds and observe waiting periods; restrictions on public funding for abortion services; imposition of parental notification and consent requirements; and putting restrictions on abortion providers.

Since the adoption of the so-called Cairo agreement that emerged from the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, 35 countries have enlarged the grounds for legal abortion. The Center for Reproductive Right’s interactive map depicts the status of these rights by region, as follows:

• Africa: Thirteen countries, including South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda, have eased legal restrictions on abortion, and no countries have tightened restrictions for legal abortion since 1994.

• Asia: Seven countries, including Cambodia, Nepal and Indonesia, have liberalized their abortion laws. Only Japan has imposed legal restrictions on abortion since 1994.

• Europe: While the majority of countries here already allowed abortion on broad grounds, five countries in 1994, including Spain and Luxembourg, further liberalized their laws to allow abortion without restriction as to reason.

• Latin America and the Caribbean: Six countries have expanded the grounds under which abortion is legal, including Brazil, Colombia, Guyana and Uruguay. El Salvador and Nicaragua amended their penal codes to ban abortion under all circumstances in 1998 and 2006, respectively.

The report says that restrictive abortion laws globally result in 22 million unsafe abortions a year, killing nearly 50,000 women annually. Approximately 47,000 deaths and five million injuries result every year from complications related to unsafe abortions. Up to 98 percent of all unsafe abortions occur in developing countries, most of which have restrictive abortion laws.



Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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