May 5, 2022 - World
Axios Explains: Abortion

Only 3 countries have rolled back abortion rights since 1994

Data: Center for Reproductive Rights; Note: Some countries with restrictions may permit abortion in cases of rape, incest and/or fetal impairment. Map: Axios Visuals

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and paves the way for states to implement abortion bans, the U.S. would join only three countries — El Salvador, Nicaragua and Poland — that have rolled back abortion rights since 1994, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The big picture: Nearly 60 countries have liberalized their abortion laws — though some only incrementally — over the last 25 years.

  • The rollback of abortion rights has come in countries "where democracies have eroded," says Margaret Harpin, a legal adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which advocates for abortion rights advocacy and tracks abortion laws worldwide.
  • At the same time, "we've seen a considerable amount of change in recent years, [and] an overall global trend towards liberalization" of abortion laws, Harpin tells Axios.

Here's a look at current abortion laws worldwide, according to research from the Center for Reproductive Rights:

Abortion is banned altogether

About 91 million women of reproductive age live in 24 countries or territories that prohibit abortion under all circumstances.

  • El Salvador has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. At least 180 women have been prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide after having obstetric emergencies, such as a miscarriage or stillbirth. After public pressure, some of these women have been released in recent years, though many remain in prison serving decades-long sentences.
  • Nicaragua implemented a total ban on abortion in 2006.
  • Honduras, which has banned abortion under any circumstance since 1985, hardened its abortion law last year by adding an amendment to its constitution, making it harder to change the ban in the future, abortion rights advocates say.
  • Malta is the only EU member state to ban abortion with no exceptions.
  • Other countries on this list include the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Haiti, Iraq, Madagascar, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Senegal and Suriname.
Abortion is permitted to save a woman's life

42 countries or territories allow abortions to save a pregnant person's life.

  • Chile currently falls into this category, but as the country drafts a new constitution, there are indicators it may include reproductive rights.
  • Other countries on this list include Bahrain, Guatemala, Kiribati, Lebanon, Libya, Malawi, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
Abortion is permitted to preserve health

Nearly 50 countries or territories allow abortion for health or therapeutic reasons. Health is sometimes specified to include physical and/or mental health.

  • Poland, where a large portion of the population identifies as Catholic, is among the countries that have rolled back abortion rights in recent years. Abortion is allowed in cases of rape, incest or if there's a risk to a woman's health or life, but "it is almost impossible for those eligible for a legal abortion to obtain one," according to Amnesty International.
  • Other countries in this category include Algeria, Bolivia, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Djibouti, Ecuador, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Togo and Zimbabwe.
Abortion is permitted on broad social or economic grounds

13 countries or territories allow "abortion under a broad range of circumstances." Some also provide exceptions in cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment or on other grounds.

  • "These countries often consider a woman’s actual or reasonably foreseeable environment and her social or economic circumstances in considering the potential impact of pregnancy and childbearing," the Center for Reproductive Rights said in its research.
  • Among the countries on this list are Ethiopia, Finland, India, Rwanda, Taiwan and Zambia.

Note: Some countries that allow abortion to save a woman's life, to preserve health and on broad social and economic grounds, may also have exceptions for cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment and/or other circumstances.

Abortion is permitted on request (gestational limits vary)

76 countries allow abortion on request, with varying gestational limits.

  • The most common gestational period is 12 weeks, but Harpin points out many countries, particularly in Europe, offer legal protections for abortion beyond that limit and/or other broad exceptions.
  • Colombia this year decriminalized abortion. Abortion became legal in Argentina last year. Ireland legalized it in 2018. South Korea, New Zealand and other nations have also liberalized their abortion laws in recent years.

Keep in mind: A country's laws don't always accurately reflect the reality on the ground, Harpin says.

  • Costs, geography, health care and other factors can limit access — as they have often done in the U.S.

Methodology, per the Center for Reproductive Rights:

  • The categorizations reflect "a reading of the black letter law in effect in each country. Abortion laws are categorized according to provisions in national statutes, legal regulations, and court decisions."
  • Mexico's Supreme Court has liberalized abortion at the national level, but "each state will need to change its laws to adhere to this decision before we can change it on our map, in accordance with our methodology for federal systems."

Go deeper: The state of abortion in America

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that nearly 60 countries have liberalized their laws in the last 25 years, not nearly 50.

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