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Campaigners put world's abortion laws on the map

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 25 Oct 2011 11:04 GMT
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LONDON (AlertNet) – Campaigners have launched an abortion law map aimed at encouraging legal reforms which could save the lives of thousands of women a year who die during risky backstreet operations.

Lawyers say countries which ban abortion have far higher rates of maternal mortality than those with liberal laws - with botched terminations accounting for 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide.

The map shows how restrictive abortion laws are in each country.

Its launch comes at a time when Russia and a number of U.S. states are taking steps to curb access to abortion.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which produced the map, said banning abortion does not stop it happening, but simply forces women to undergo dangerous clandestine procedures or travel abroad.

“When you restrict access to abortion, women die. It doesn’t deter abortions at all,” said Johanna Fine, a lawyer who oversaw the map project.

“In fact, in countries that have much more liberal abortion laws the rate of abortion is much lower because these countries also provide contraceptive information and services and sexual education.”

Tens of thousands of women die every year because of botched abortions and many others are left disabled or suffering from medical complications.

Fine said that comparing the abortion map with the World Health Organization’s map of maternal mortality rates shows how countries with the most restrictive laws generally have higher rates of maternal mortality.

“Globally, unsafe abortion accounts for 13 percent of maternal mortality. And indeed among countries with incredibly restrictive abortion laws it can account for a much higher percentage,” Fine added.

“It’s a very large percentage considering unsafe abortion is entirely preventable.”


Overall, there has been a liberalisation of abortion laws since 1994 when an international conference on population and development decided to tackle the issue of unsafe abortions.

But Fine said there had been a recent trend towards imposing barriers to make it harder for women to access abortion.

For example, she said Russia’s parliament was looking at amendments to its abortion law which would impose requirements for a waiting period, biased mandatory counselling and spousal and parental consent.

A number of U.S. states have also passed or tried to pass restrictive measures. These include bans on late-term abortions, requirements for clinics to show women ultrasound images before performing abortions, new rules regarding parental notification and limits on payment for abortions under state-funded health plans.


Fine said abortion laws were a very important indicator of reproductive rights around the world.

“The reason we map it is because it really measures women’s reproductive autonomy," she added. "There’s no country in the world where women have the right to determine their own reproductive decisions and control their own bodies where there is a restrictive abortion law.”

The abortion law map divides countries into four categories:

  • Those countries that prohibit it altogether or only allow it to save a woman’s life – 68 countries accounting for a quarter of the world’s population
  • Those countries that permit abortion to save a woman’s health
  • Those that also allow it on socioeconomic grounds
  • Those that permit full access to abortion – 58 countries accounting for nearly 40 percent of the population

The map also highlights exceptions, for example some countries which restrict abortion allow it if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. In those countries that permit abortion, a key shows the gestational period during which it is allowed.

But Fine admitted the map did not give the full picture.

“What our map demonstrates is the legal status of abortion on the book. What it doesn’t show is the implementation of the law or different barriers to access,” she said.

For example, India allows abortion on socioeconomic grounds but implementation remains a huge challenge, particularly in rural areas, Fine said.

In Nepal, which has liberal laws, many women are unable to access safe abortion because the cost is prohibitive. The country is drafting a comprehensive abortion law which Fine said would be a huge step forward.

The map also includes the full legislation for 22 countries where the centre has been working on reforms. It plans to add the legislation for another 43 countries by December 2012.

It is the seventh abortion map published by the centre since 1998, but the first interactive one.

Despite recent moves by some countries to limit access to abortion, Fine said putting the map together had been uplifting.

“It was really inspiring to see the progress the world has made,” she added.

“We always have to be very vigilant and make sure that women’s right to abortion is defended against a host of attacks we have seen lately. But to take a step back and see, since 1994, the progress that has been made is very reaffirming.”

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