As women in the United States are on the verge of losing the constitutional right to abortion, courts in many other parts of the world have taken the opposite direction.
When the final decision of the United States Supreme Court is delivered, expected in late June or early July, the world will be watching. The Biden administration’s budget for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) includes funds for “increased access to maternal health care and voluntary family planning.”
In a report in late 2019, the Council of Foreign Relations tracked nearly 30 cases of countries this century that expanded access to abortion services, with only a handful opting to tighten restrictions.
It is not yet known what impact there will be outside the United States of the leaked draft opinion suggesting that the United States Supreme Court could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade.
But for activists who for years have campaigned demanding free access to abortion, often taking the United States as a model, it is a discouraging sign and a reminder that hard-won gains are not necessarily permanent.
“While the steps taken in recent years to decriminalize and legalize abortion in places like Argentina, Ireland, Mexico and Colombia have been a huge victory for the global community,” said Agnes Callamard, Secretary general of human rights group Amnesty International, in a statement, “there are grim signs that the United States is not keeping pace with the progress the rest of the world has made in protecting sexual and reproductive rights” .
In Colombia, the Constitutional Court in February legalized the procedure up to the 24th week of pregnancy, part of a broader trend seen in heavily Catholic parts of Latin America.
The February decision in Colombia established a general right for women to have an abortion within the 24-week period, whereas previously they could only do so in specific cases, for example if a fetus had malformations or if a pregnancy resulted from rape. Abortion is still allowed after this period in these special circumstances.
“A terrible precedent”
The decision fell short of advocates’ hopes for full decriminalization, but Catalina Martinez Coral, director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, who was among the groups advocating abortion case in Colombia’s high court, said he still left the country with the “most progressive legal framework in Latin America.”
Martinez Coral is worried about the potential American change.
“This is a terrible precedent for years to come for the region and the world,” she said.
Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled last year that criminalizing abortion was unconstitutional. As the nation’s highest court, its ruling bars all courts from charging a woman with a felony for terminating a pregnancy.
However, laws banning abortion are still in effect in most of Mexico’s 32 states, and nongovernmental organizations that have long called for decriminalization are lobbying state legislatures to reform them. Abortion was already readily available in Mexico City and some states.
To the south, in Argentina, lawmakers passed a bill in late 2020 legalizing abortion up to and after the 14th week for circumstances similar to those described in the Colombia ruling.
It is also widely available in Cuba and Uruguay.
But the expansion of access to abortion has not spread to all of Latin America, with many countries limiting it to certain circumstances, such as Brazil, the most populous country in the region, where it does not is allowed only in cases of rape, risk to the woman’s life and certified cases. congenital malformation anencephaly. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is seeking re-election in October, recently said he sees legalizing abortion as a public health issue, drawing criticism in a country where few approve of the procedure.
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Other places have total bans with no exceptions, such as Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Courts in the latter have sentenced women to long prison terms for aggravated homicide, even in cases where prosecutors suspected a miscarriage was actually an abortion.
Many African countries also maintain complete bans, but in October 2021 Benin legalized abortion in most cases up to 12 weeks. This has dramatically increased safe access to the procedure after the Minister of Health reported that nearly 200 women died each year from complications of clandestine abortions. Previously, abortion was permitted in cases of rape or incest, risk to the woman’s life or serious fetal malformation.
Liberalization in Europe, Israel
Most European countries have legalized abortion, including predominantly Catholic countries. Ireland did so in 2018, followed by tiny San Marino in an electoral referendum last fall. It remains illegal in Andorra, Malta and Vatican City, while Poland last year tightened its abortion laws.
It has also been widely available in Israel since 1978 and relatively uncontroversial, permitted by law before the 24th week with the approval of hospital “termination committees” made up of medical professionals including at least one woman.
Laws and interpretations vary across the Muslim world.
Abortion has been legal for up to 12 weeks in Tunisia for decades, but in Iran it has been banned since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Last year the head of Cairo’s highest religious institution, Al-Azhar, said abortion is not the solution, even in cases where a child is likely to be seriously ill or disabled.