Abortion laws refer to the legal regulations that govern access to and the practice of abortion. These laws can vary widely from country to country and even within countries. In some countries, abortion is legal and accessible, while in others, it is illegal or only allowed in certain circumstances, such as to save the life of the woman or in cases of rape or incest. In some countries, there are restrictions on the timing of the procedure or the methods that can be used. Abortion laws can be influenced by a variety of factors, including religious, moral, and political beliefs, as well as social and economic factors. In some countries, the issue of abortion is highly contentious, with debates over women’s rights, reproductive health, and the role of government in regulating healthcare. Changes in abortion laws can have a significant impact on women’s health and access to healthcare, as well as on broader social and political issues. In recent years, there have been efforts to liberalize abortion laws in some countries, while others have sought to restrict access to abortion. Abortion laws vary widely across the world, with some countries allowing abortion without any restrictions, while others prohibit it entirely or only allow it in certain circumstances.
Here is a brief overview of abortion laws in different countries of the world:
Abortion laws in Australia are primarily regulated at the state and territory level, rather than at the federal level. The laws vary somewhat between states and territories, but in general, abortion is legal in Australia. In most states and territories, abortion is legal if it is performed by a qualified medical practitioner and is deemed necessary to preserve the woman’s physical or mental health. In some cases, the woman’s social and economic circumstances may also be taken into account. However, there may be restrictions on the timing of the procedure, with most states allowing abortion up to around 20-24 weeks of pregnancy.
Physician Henry Morgentaler unsuccessfully argued against the Criminal Code’s ban on abortion in Canada in the case Morgentaler v. The Queen (1976), which was decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. According to federal legislation, the Court determined that the abortion law was properly passed by Parliament. This was the first abortion-related Supreme Court ruling of three that Morgentaler filed. In the 1988 R v. Morgentaler case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Criminal Code’s ban on abortion was unconstitutional because it infringed on women’s right to personal security under Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Since this decision, Canada has not had any criminal legislation governing abortion. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down a provincial attempt to control abortions in Canada in the case of R v. Morgentaler. This came after the R. v. Morgentaler judgement in 1988, which had invalidated the federal abortion statute for violating section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The provincial rules were declared to be criminal laws in 1993, which would be a violation of the Constitution Act of 1867. In accordance with the Act, Canada’s federal Parliament is solely responsible for criminal legislation.
In China, abortion is legal and readily available. The government promotes family planning and has implemented a “one-child policy” in the past, which has recently been relaxed to a “two-child policy” and was further relaxed to a three-child policy in 2021. Abortion is considered a part of family planning and is commonly used as a method of birth control in the country. There have been concerns about forced abortions and sterilizations in China in the past, particularly under the one-child policy. However, the government has officially denied these allegations and has stated that family planning policies are voluntary and based on informed choices.
In France, abortion is legal and freely available up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. If a woman wishes to terminate her pregnancy after 14 weeks, she must demonstrate that her physical or mental health is at risk or that the foetus has a severe abnormality. In November 2022, National Assembly adopted a bill to enshrine the right to abortion in the French Constitution. It is significant that the National Assembly has now adopted the bill, which would make France the first country to explicitly recognize the right to abortion in its constitution. By enshrining the right to abortion in the constitution, the French government would be sending a strong message of support for women’s reproductive autonomy and the importance of access to safe and legal abortion services.
According to the law, abortions can be performed legally in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy in Germany. However, the woman must receive counselling from a state-recognized counselling centre at least three days before the procedure. The counselling is meant to provide information about the medical, psychological, and social aspects of abortion, as well as alternatives to abortion. After the twelfth week of pregnancy, abortion is only allowed in certain cases, such as if the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the mother, or if the child is expected to be born with severe disabilities. On June 24, 2022, the government in Germany planned to abolish the law that prosecuted doctors from giving factual information or the procedure of the abortion. Doctors no longer will be penalised from giving additional information after this law gets struck down.
Abortion is legal under certain circumstances in India, and the laws surrounding it are governed by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP) of 1971, which was amended in 2021. In 2021, the Indian government amended the MTP Act to extend the legal time limit for abortions from 20 weeks to 24 weeks in certain cases, including foetal abnormalities and pregnancies resulting from sexual assault. A recent Supreme Court decision on September 29 2022 firmly established the right to abortion as a “reproductive right” protected by the Indian constitution irrespective of the marital status of the women. The court acknowledged in its ruling that the realisation of fundamental human rights depends on reproductive and decisional autonomy. Supreme court held that, “the right of every woman to make reproductive choices without undue interference from the state is central to the idea of human dignity. Deprivation of access to reproductive healthcare or emotional and physical wellbeing also injures the dignity of women.” As a result, the court views reproductive rights as encompassing not just the right of choice but also a number of other rights, such as the right to access contraceptive instruction and information, the right to safe and legal abortions, and the right to reproductive health care. Prior to this decision, it was widely believed that the MTP Act permitted abortions up to 20 weeks (on the advice of one medical professional) and up to 24 weeks in certain specific circumstances only. The statute has since then been broadened by the Supreme Court to guarantee that all women, regardless of marital status, have access to abortions up to 24 weeks gestation.
In Italy, abortion is legal and has been since 1978. The law permits abortion for any reason up to 90 days after conception. After 90 days, abortion is only permitted if the life of the woman is at risk or if the foetus has severe abnormalities. It is also important to note that while abortion is legal in Italy, access to abortion services can vary depending on the region and the provider. There have been reports of doctors refusing to provide abortion services or hospitals not having enough trained staff to perform the procedure.
Abortion is permitted only under certain circumstances up to 22 weeks, such as when the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s life or health or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. In these cases, a woman must obtain the approval of two physicians and undergo counselling before the procedure. After 22 weeks of pregnancy, abortion is generally not permitted unless the pregnancy poses a serious threat to the woman’s life or health. Recently, on April 21, 2023, Japan’s health ministry has given its approval for the country’s first abortion pill enabling women to obtain safe abortions. However, spousal consent before opting for abortion is still needed by the women in a male-dominated Japan society.
9. New Zealand:
In New Zealand, abortion was decriminalized on March 18, 2020, through the passing of the Abortion Legislation Act 2020. The law allows a woman to have an abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy without the need for justification. After 20 weeks, a woman may still have an abortion if a health practitioner agrees that the abortion is appropriate, taking into account the woman’s physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as the gestational age of the foetus. Under the Abortion Legislation Act 2020, a woman seeking an abortion must undergo a consultation with a qualified health practitioner. The law also requires that a woman seeking an abortion be given the opportunity to discuss her decision with a counsellor, and that the counsellor must ensure that the woman’s decision is voluntary and informed. In addition, the Abortion Legislation Act 2020 allows for conscientious objection by health practitioners who do not wish to provide abortion services.
10. North Korea:
The exact legal framework surrounding abortion in North Korea is not clear. It appears that the Criminal Code of North Korea does have specific provisions regarding abortion, including the requirement that the procedure be performed for “important reasons”. The lack of clarity regarding what constitutes an “important reason” could potentially result in inconsistencies in the application of the law. It is also concerning that those who perform an abortion without an “important reason” are subject to imprisonment, as this could deter healthcare providers from offering safe and legal abortion services. Abortion is allowed virtually on request up to the seventh month of pregnancy, provided there is an “important reason” in North Korea. The country has been criticized for its lack of transparency and for violating human rights, including the right to reproductive health and autonomy.
In Pakistan, abortion is generally illegal under the Penal Code, except in certain circumstances. The only exceptions when abortion is allowed are:
When the continuation of pregnancy would be a risk to the life of the mother or would cause serious harm to her physical or mental health;
When there is a risk of the child being born with a physical or mental abnormality;
However, even in these cases, abortion is only permitted up to 120 days (4 months) of pregnancy. After this time, abortion is illegal except in cases where it is necessary to save the life of the mother.
Abortion laws in Russia have undergone several changes throughout the country’s history. Currently, abortion is legal in Russia and available on request up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Women can also obtain abortion at later stages of pregnancy if they have a medical indication or in cases of foetal abnormalities. Russian government plans to improve the country’s demographic situation through 2025. One of the measures included in the plan is to reduce the number of abortions carried out in the country by 50% by 2025.
13. South Africa:
In South Africa, abortion is legal up to 12 weeks of pregnancy for any reason. After 12 weeks and up to 20 weeks, abortion is legal only in certain circumstances, such as when continuing the pregnancy would pose a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health, or if the foetus has a severe abnormality. Beyond 20 weeks, abortion is only legal if continuing the pregnancy would pose a risk to the woman’s life or if there is a severe foetal abnormality. Women seeking an abortion must first receive counselling and information about their options, and must provide informed consent before the procedure can be performed. Abortions can be performed by a registered health practitioner in a designated health facility, or by a midwife who has been trained to perform abortions. In addition to these legal provisions, South Africa has a progressive sexual and reproductive health policy that recognizes access to safe abortion as a human right. The policy also emphasizes the importance of comprehensive sexual education, contraception, and post-abortion care to ensure that women have the resources and support they need to make informed decisions about their reproductive health.
14. South Korea:
In South Korea, abortion was illegal under most circumstances until April 2021. However, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in April 2019 that the current ban on abortion was unconstitutional and gave the South Korean government until the end of 2020 to amend the law. In response to the court’s ruling, the South Korean government passed a bill legalizing abortion in January 2021. The bill allows for elective abortions up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, and abortions after 14 weeks in cases of foetal abnormalities, risk to the mother’s health, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The new law also requires medical professionals to provide information and counselling to women seeking abortions, and for there to be a seven-day waiting period between a woman’s initial request for an abortion and the procedure itself.
In Spain, abortion is legal under certain circumstances. The current law, passed in 2010, allows for abortion on request up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. After 14 weeks, abortions are allowed only in cases of foetal anomalies incompatible with life, serious risk to the health of the mother, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape. The law requires that women seeking abortions receive counselling and information about the procedure, and that they wait for a period of at least three days before having the procedure done. Abortions must be performed in licensed clinics or hospitals by trained medical professionals.
In Sweden, abortion is legal and widely available. The current law allows for abortion on request up to the 18th week of pregnancy. After 18 weeks, abortions are allowed only in cases of serious foetal anomalies or risk to the life or health of the mother. The law requires that women seeking abortions receive counselling and information about the procedure, and that they wait for a period of at least one week before having the procedure done. Abortions must be performed in licensed clinics or hospitals by trained medical professionals.
In Switzerland, abortion is legal under certain circumstances. The current law allows for abortion on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy. After 12 weeks, abortions are allowed only in cases of serious foetal anomalies, risk to the life or health of the mother, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. The law requires that women seeking abortions receive counselling and information about the procedure. Abortions must be performed in licensed clinics or hospitals by trained medical professionals.
18. United Kingdom:
In United Kingdom, abortion is legal under certain circumstances. The current law allows for abortion on request up to the 24th week of pregnancy. After 24 weeks, abortions are allowed only in cases of serious foetal anomalies, risk to the life or health of the mother, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, had very restrictive abortion laws until October 2019. The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 now allows abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and up to 24 weeks in cases of foetal abnormalities or risk to the life or health of the mother.
U.S.: Abortion laws in the United States vary from States, but the overall legal framework had been established by the landmark Federal Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court held that a woman has a constitutional right to choose to have an abortion before the point of viability (when a foetus can potentially survive outside the womb) and that the state cannot unduly restrict this right. However, that ruling was overturned by Federal Supreme Court’s ruling in 2022 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, No. 19-1392, 597 U.S.. The Federal Supreme Court held that the Federal Constitution does not confer a right to abortion to any U.S citizen. The Federal Court’s decision overruled Roe v. Wade (supra) and vested individual States the power to regulate any aspect of abortion not protected by Federal law. State Governments in the U.S., now have the right to control abortion laws and women’s reproductive rights.
In conclusion, abortion laws vary significantly across the globe, reflecting diverse cultural, religious, and socio-political contexts. While some countries grant broad access to safe and legal abortion, others impose strict restrictions or outright bans. The debate surrounding abortion remains highly contentious, with proponents emphasizing women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, and opponents advocating for the protection of foetal life. As societies continue to grapple with this complex issue, finding a balance between individual freedoms, healthcare considerations, and ethical considerations remains a paramount challenge for policymakers worldwide.