Over the past 10 years, more than a dozen countries have made it easier to get abortions, and women from Mexico to Ireland have mounted court challenges to get access to the procedure.
The trend contrasts sharply with the United States, where this week South Dakota’s governor signed legislation that would ban most abortions in the state, launching a bitter new battle that activists seem ready to take to the Supreme Court.
Abortion is far less divisive in the rest of the world.
Most European countries have legalized abortion, with limits, for years and the issue rarely makes news. Many Latin American countries ban abortion or severely limit it. In the Middle East, Islamic law forbids abortion, although most countries allow it if the mother’s life is endangered. Asia is a mixed bag, with the procedure banned in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, but common in China and India.
Nevertheless, the question is not entirely settled: Court cases in Mexico, Poland, Colombia, and Ireland have sought to broaden access to abortion.
On the other side, there are new Vatican-backed efforts to call into question Italy’s liberal abortion law, and women’s rights activists say they fear a new tightening of Poland’s law, already one of Europe’s strictest.
No overseas aid from U.S.
The Bush administration has also blocked non-governmental organizations overseas from receiving U.S. aid if they even discuss the possibility of abortion in family planning programs.
Those efforts, and the debate over whether the right to life or the right to an abortion takes precedence, mean the matter is far from resolved.
“I think we are going to see an increased debate globally,” said Yuri Mantilla, international government affairs director for Focus on the Family, a lobbying group. “We have a clash of world views in terms of international law.”
Each year, 46 million women worldwide have abortions, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank. About 60 percent live in countries where abortion is broadly permitted. Twenty-five percent live in nations where it is banned or allowed only to save a woman’s life. The rest live in countries where abortion is allowed to protect a woman’s life or health.
The World Health Organization says 19 million women — nearly all in the developing world — have “unsafe” abortions each year, done by someone unskilled or in a place with poor medical standards. Of them, 600,000 die from complications.
As a result, rights activists have hailed legislation in 15 countries over the past 10 years that have relaxed abortion restrictions.
Among them, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Mali changed restrictive laws and now allow abortions to save a woman’s life or health in cases of rape, incest and fetal impairment, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York.
Nepal, which had prohibited abortion altogether, legalized it in 2002 without restrictions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and after that to protect a woman’s life.
Progressive decisions globally
“What we’re seeing is that as the U.S. is backsliding on abortion rights, the rest of the world is moving forward,” said Laura Katzive, deputy director of the international legal program for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Yet even in Europe, there are efforts to chip away at access to abortion.
Italy’s health minister recently placed restrictions on importation of the abortion pill RU-486, and for the first time in nearly 20 years, abortion has become a political issue ahead of general elections next month.
While there is no real move to overturn Italy’s 1978 law, which allows abortion through the third month of pregnancy, the Vatican has launched a campaign urging Italians to vote for anti-abortion candidates.
Abortions in cases of rape in Poland
Poland, another overwhelmingly Catholic country, allows abortion until the 12th week if the pregnancy threatens the health or life of the woman, is the result of rape or another crime or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. Written permission from a doctor is required.
The conservative government elected last year has made no statements about changing the legislation, but Wanda Nowicka, head of the Federation of Women and Family Planning, said women’s groups fear the law may be further restricted.
She cited debates in Catholic media and the appointment of a government family policy adviser who has declared that rape victims should have their babies.
On the other side, Portugal’s center-left Socialist government plans to hold a referendum on introducing abortion on demand through the 10th week of pregnancy — a bid to loosen one of Europe’s more restrictive laws.
Australia’s parliament, meanwhile, ended an emotional, weeks-long debate when it voted last month to allow RU-486 to become available in the country.
In predominantly Catholic Ireland, women are mounting two challenges at the European Court of Human Rights to the Irish constitutional ban on abortion, which forbids the procedure except when the woman’s life is at risk.
Escape law by traveling overseas
Some 6,000 Irish women skirt the ban each year by traveling to Britain, where abortion has been legal, with restrictions, since 1967.
The first Irish case expected to come before the court in Strasbourg, France, concerns a woman who had a fetus with a fatal abnormality. The case merited termination under Irish law but the woman found no doctor in Ireland willing to perform the procedure.
“The law as it stands does confuse doctors,” said Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association.
The case echoes of that of Alicja Tysiac, who brought her challenge to Poland’s law to the court in Strasbourg last month.
Tysiac, who suffers from severe myopia, was refused an abortion despite conclusions by three opthamalogists that there was a serious risk to her eyesight if she carried her third pregnancy to term. Following the delivery in 2000, her eyesight deteriorated considerably.
Court challenges in Latin America have had mixed results.
On Tuesday, the Mexican government signed an agreement promising more than $33,000 to Paulina Ramirez, who was raped at 13 and denied an abortion despite laws allowing abortion for rape victims.
In Colombia, where abortion is banned, the Constitutional Court decided in December not to rule on a lawsuit seeking to soften the laws to permit the practice in extreme cases such as rape.