Abortion Laws Around the World
The Supreme Court’s elimination of the constitutional right to abortion, after nearly a half-century, has made the United States one of the few countries actively strengthening abortion restrictions.
Abortion is now banned in at least eight states, a shift toward criminalization that runs counter to the longstanding policies of some close allies, like Canada, and to recent easings in several nations that had long imposed bans, like Ireland, Mexico and South Korea.
But no nations share the same history regarding abortion, nor does any part of the world have uniform laws: Women seeking abortions everywhere must navigate distinct rules, in a variety of health care systems, if access is available at all. The following examples, while not comprehensive, illustrate the diversity of those laws — and how they’re changing.
No laws restrict abortion in Canada, where it is covered by provincial and territorial public health care systems as an essential medical procedure within 20 weeks of conception and, under some circumstances, after that point, such as when a pregnancy threatens the mother’s life. Access and exceptions vary by province, and sometimes by hospital.
Until 1988, criminal laws allowed abortions only if approved by committees of physicians. That year, the Supreme Court struck down the laws in a landmark case. Most legal scholars agree that if the issue were to reach the court again, it would make the right to abortion explicit.
— Ian Austen
Before a court ruling last year, abortion was largely restricted, with Mexico City and only three of 31 states permitting the procedure up to 12 weeks of fetal gestation. But the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the fall that penalizing women who undergo abortions was unconstitutional, and in the months since, five more states have moved to legalize abortions.
The justices did not specify how far into a pregnancy abortion was permitted, leaving the details to the states. For the states that still ban abortion, legislatures will need to change laws to permit the procedure.
— Maria Abi-Habib
Abortion is completely illegal and punishable by jail for the woman and the doctors.
The Legislature eliminated all exceptions in 2006, ending a century of law that allowed abortions in cases of life-threatening complications or pregnancies caused by rape. President Daniel Ortega, a strong supporter of criminalizing abortion, has received support from Evangelical leaders in Nicaragua and the United States.
— Yubelka Mendoza and Maria Abi-Habib
Abortions have been legal in England, Scotland and Wales for more than 50 years, protected by the Abortion Act of 1967. Abortions can be legally performed up to the 24th week of pregnancy and must be medically approved by two doctors.
The 1967 law allows some exceptions for later-term abortions, including when the pregnancy endangers the woman’s health or if a prenatal scan reveals a fetus abnormality. A provision of the law allowing abortion if the fetus carries significant risk of serious disability was at the center of a court case last year.
In rare circumstances, such as when a woman, without doctors’ consent, takes medicine intended to terminate a pregnancy, an abortion could be prosecuted as a criminal act.
From Opinion: The End of Roe v. Wade
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
- Michelle Goldberg: “The end of Roe v. Wade was foreseen, but in wide swaths of the country, it has still created wrenching and potentially tragic uncertainties.”
- Spencer Bokat-Lindell: “What exactly does it mean for the Supreme Court to experience a crisis of legitimacy, and is it really in one?”
- Bonnie Kristian, journalist: “For many backers of former President Donald Trump, Friday’s Supreme Court decision was a long-awaited vindication.” It might also mark the end of his political career.
- Erika Bachiochi, legal scholar: “It is precisely the unborn child’s state of existential dependence upon its mother, not its autonomy, that makes it especially entitled to care, nurture and legal protection.”
The 1967 law did not cover Northern Ireland, which for decades prohibited almost all abortions.
British lawmakers overturned that ban in 2019, legalizing “unconditional termination” of pregnancy within the first 12 weeks. But with resistance coming from anti-abortion and church groups, abortion services remain limited.
— Saskia Solomon
A 1983 constitutional amendment banned nearly all abortion, reflecting the Roman Catholic Church’s deep influence in the country. That influence had waned by 2018, when a referendum to end the ban was approved by 66 percent of voters.
Lawmakers then legalized abortion in the Health Act of 2018, allowing abortion for any reason up to the end of the first trimester. The law provides exceptions beyond 12 weeks in cases of fetal abnormalities considered fatal after birth or a potential risk to the woman’s health.
— Saskia Solomon
Soviet-era Poland offered some of Europe’s broadest abortion access, and it became a destination for women seeking abortions. But after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and under the influence of the Catholic Church, the Polish Parliament in 1993 passed one of Europe’s strictest bans, asserting that “every human being shall have an inherent right to life from the moment of conception.”
It allowed three categories of exception: danger to the mother’s health or life; rape or incest; severe fetal abnormalities.
Despite mass protests, the ban was tightened last year by the nationalist Law and Justice Party, eliminating the most-used exception — fetal abnormalities — which accounted for almost all of the roughly 1,000 legal abortions a year. An estimated 100,000 to 150,000 illegal abortions take place every year in the country, activists say.
The remaining exceptions are problematic for abortion seekers. Rape victims face a deadline of the 12th week of pregnancy, and they require a certificate from a prosecutor, which takes a long time to acquire. And the definition of what constitutes a “serious” risk to a woman’s health is too vague for doctors to always act decisively. In a small number of cases, women have died of sepsis after doctors refused to intervene while the fetus’s heart was still beating.
Women cannot be punished for taking an abortion pill or undergoing an abortion abroad.
Anyone deemed to have aided or abetted an illegal abortion faces up to eight years in prison.
— Katrin Bennhold
A total ban was eased in 1971 with the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, which made some abortions legal.
But activists continued to seek further easing, to include abortion in cases of fetal anomaly or pregnancy caused by rape. In 2021, the federal government amended the law, expanding the criteria for legal abortions and adding a privacy clause to protect women who went to clinics.
The law allows women to terminate pregnancies until 20 weeks. Between 20 and 24 weeks, a woman needs two doctors to approve an abortion, and after 24 weeks, abortions are allowed only when the woman’s health is at risk. Women can now terminate unwanted pregnancies caused by contraceptive failure regardless of marital status; before the amendment, only a married couple could do that.
Still, abortions done in violation of the law are punishable by up to seven years in prison for the woman and medical personnel.
— Sameer Yasir
Abortion has been legal in some form since 1953. By the 1970s, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party grew increasingly worried about overpopulation, abortion became more widely accessible, and the one-child policy led to some forced abortions.
Sex-selective abortions are illegal, meant to counter the widespread preference for boys over girls. In response to recent concerns over declining birthrates and an aging population, families may now have three children without penalty. Given the government’s invasive family planning policies, some women fear it will restrict abortion access. The authorities last year said they intended to reduce “medically unnecessary abortions,” without explaining how.
Access to abortion services varies by region, with some requiring women to produce certificates of medical necessity. In Jiangxi Province, women who are more than 14 weeks pregnant need three signatures from medical personnel.
Scholars, activists and some foreign governments have accused the authorities of using family planning policies to suppress ethnic minorities, which the government denies.
— Vivian Wang
Under the 2010 Constitution, abortion is permitted if a trained health professional determines a need for emergency treatment, or if the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the mother. In other circumstances, abortion providers can face up to 14 years in prison under Kenya’s penal code.
In practice, many women who could obtain a legal abortion cannot because of poverty, lack of access to health services or a lack of information about their rights.
— Matthew Mpoke Bigg
Last fall, Benin joined South Africa and Mozambique as one of the few African countries to broadly legalize abortion within 12 weeks.
Under the new law, abortion will be allowed “when the pregnancy is likely to aggravate or cause a situation of material, educational, professional or moral distress incompatible with the interest of the woman and/or the unborn child.” In doing so, Benin became the third country in Africa, along with Ethiopia and Zambia, to allow abortion based on the social or economic needs of the woman.
The previous law authorized abortion only if the pregnancy endangered the woman’s life or was the result of rape or incest, or if the fetus was malformed. The new law will take effect after the authorities detail how it will be applied, which could take months.
— Elian Peltier
A strict anti-abortion law has been on the books for 85 years, derived from the French Penal Code of the colonial era that bans the procedure under nearly any circumstances. The woman and doctor face imprisonment if convicted.
It does have one loophole, which is based on the medical code of ethics: Doctors are allowed — but not legally obligated — to terminate a pregnancy if it puts the woman’s life at risk and she signs a document saying the procedure was lifesaving.
Though convictions are uncommon, the law and social stigma have pushed abortion practices out of public sight, where the woman’s safety cannot be protected and the procedure can be prohibitively expensive.
— Nada Rashwan
Since 1983, abortion has been legal up to 10 weeks after conception. Married women need spousal consent. The law allows exceptions after 10 weeks when the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman, if the doctor concludes the fetus has a grave disability, and in cases of rape.
Violators face prosecution and prison — for both the woman and the doctor
Abortion remains a divisive issue. In 2012, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now the president and then prime minister, called abortion murder and urged more restrictions. After popular outrage, the law was never amended, but in practice, abortion services are unavailable in many state hospitals.
— Safak Timur