Why The Abortion Debate Is Killing Women Worldwide

The story of Savita Halappanavar, who died at the age of 31, became synonymous with the movement to repeal Ireland’s 8th Amendment. Halappanavar died after being denied an abortion while miscarrying. Image by Berry Cronin | The New York Times.

To talk about the decriminalization of abortion strikes a heavy chord. According to the Guttmacher Institute, up to 31,000 women die every year as a result of clandestine procedures. Around seven million are injured or fall ill. The complications they suffer for their “crime” are both numerous and horrific.

While the majority of unsafe terminations take place in developing countries, an overview of abortion laws around the world reveals how global attitudes towards women’s healthcare lack compassion and justice, no matter the country.

Anti-Abortion Laws Do Not Reduce Abortion Rates

Around 55.9 million terminations take place every year. Abortion rates are as high in countries where it is restricted as they are in countries where it’s permissible, but only 45 percent of procedures worldwide are defined as safe, according to World Health Organization criteria. Bottom line, abortion is happening, whether legal or illegal.  

Anti-abortion activists maintain that prohibiting or restricting availability will encourage women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, but making abortion illegal does not dissuade them from ending a pregnancy; it only makes them more likely to die as a result.

“. . . but making abortion illegal does not dissuade them from ending a pregnancy; it only makes them more likely to die as a result.”

Broadly liberal laws are found across Europe, and in several countries in Asia. Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest annual abortion rate, at 44 per 1,000 women, even though many Latin American countries restrict the practice. The lowest rate is in North America at 17 per 1,000 women.

Abortion in the U.S.

Women's March NYC

Women cram into a subway car in New York City en route to the second annual Women’s March. The Women’s March began as a protest immediately following President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The organization now continues to advocate for human rights—including women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare, reproductive rights, the environment, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality. Andrew Kelly/Reuters | The New York Times.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal for 2019 aims to end federal funding to any organization that provides abortion. This could cut half of Planned Parenthood’s funding, which would have hugely detrimental effects. These clinics provide many other vital services, such as sexual health and cancer screening, as well as contraception—the very thing that prevents unwanted pregnancy in the first place.

While laws vary from state to state, the federal government cannot yet ban abortion outright. But restrictions are still imposed, such as mandatory counseling, ultrasounds, and waiting periods. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that home abortions are on the rise.  

Iowa abortion bill

Legislators in Iowa passed a bill that will outlaw most abortions after six weeks. However, on June 1, a judge issued a temporary injunction preventing the law from going into effect until after the lawsuits filed against it are resolved. Image by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register, via Associated Press | The New York Times.

While a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the reproductive rights of women in the U.S., those in other countries have never even had these rights.

Abortion in Latin America

Argentina abortion debate

A young woman takes part in a demonstration in in Buenos Aires. The text on her back reads, “Wealthy women abort, the poor die.” Image by Natacha Pisarenko  for the Associated Press | The New York Times.

Latin America leans towards total prohibition, but Uruguay bucks the trend. Lawmakers decriminalized abortion in 2012 after feminist groups campaigned for 25 years—yet a woman must first discuss her decision with a mental health practitioner, a social worker, and a gynecologist.

This hasn’t dissuaded the women of Uruguay, where abortion rates continue to rise and the number of maternal deaths falls. Prior to 2012, up to 20,000 women annually were admitted to hospital due to dangerous abortions.  

Women’s rights activists believe Uruguay has made progress because of the long separation between religion and government. An attempt by Catholic groups in 2013 to overturn new laws secured the support of only nine percent of voters.  

By comparison, the laws in El Salvador are so virulent that women have been jailed for miscarriage. Abortion is criminalized in all cases, even when a woman’s life is in danger. Carmen Teodora Vásquez spent more than 10 years in jail after being convicted of aggravated homicide when she had a miscarriage in 2007.

She was released in February after the Supreme Court ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to show she’d killed her baby.

“As women, we are never listened to.” She said. “This is the moment to speak out. With the situation we’re in now, in a few years it will be a crime to be a woman in El Salvador.”

Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín was jailed after suffering a stillbirth, and released in March after her 30-year sentence was commuted. Nancy Northup is from the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is leading a campaign to free Salvadorian women. She said, “Although she has been released, her conviction has not been overturned and she continues to be guilty in the eyes of the law.”

Laws are no less brutal in Nicaragua. Women seeking abortion after rape can be prosecuted, regardless of their age. Inspector Martylee Ingram handled the case of an 11-year-old girl. Her job is to enforce the law, but she doesn’t believe the pregnancy should proceed. “It’s a baby having a baby. She might not survive.”

Abortion was legalized in Chile in 2017, but government regulations are already undermining access, and right-wing lawmakers in Brazil are pushing for an outright ban. In Argentina, where 43 women died in 2017 as a result of illegal abortions, women still hold out hope.

Just last week, lawmakers in the lower house of Congress narrowly approved a bill that would allow women to have a legal  abortion up to 14 weeks. The bill now goes to the Senate where, if it passes, it will make Argentina the most populous country in Latin America to legalize abortion.  

This comes in the wake of three years of activism by a group called Ni Una Menos (Not One Less). Jordana Timerman, an Argentine Journalist, writes, “The movement began as a response to the murders of hundreds of women and girls, but activists quickly argued that stopping femicide also requires targeting the machista mind-set that fuels it.”

This is the Pope’s home country, after all. Complete criminalization of abortion exists in six other countries—the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Suriname, Malta, and the Vatican—and all of them are Catholic.

Abortion in Ireland

Ireland abortion vote

66% of those who voted in Ireland voted in favor of repealing the Eighth Amendment. Image by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

In contrast, the population of Ireland made history by out-voting Catholic influence in May 2018 when a referendum demanded repeal of the eighth amendment. Action can now be taken to reform laws that make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion in the Irish Republic than parts of Latin America.

Terminations have only been permissible on the grounds of fatal risk to the woman’s life. Current laws discount rape, incest, and fetal abnormalities, and if a woman is carrying a fetus that is unlikely to survive, she must carry the pregnancy to term.

Fetuses, it seems, have had more rights than the mothers carrying them. At least 10 Irish women have been traveling to England every day to end their pregnancy. As for those who haven’t had the resources to travel, seeking an abortion in Ireland could have landed them up to 14 years in jail.

Irish journalist Una Mullally believes the repeal will echo around the world. “It will be heard in El Salvador…. It will be heard in the U.S., where state by state the rights conferred by Roe v Wade are being whittled away to the especial detriment of poor women; women who own little or nothing, not even the body in which they walk around.”    

Ireland pro choice

Image by Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters | The New York Times

So this isn’t just about a woman’s right to choose. It’s also about the interplay between a country’s political, religious, and cultural structures. Irish author Sally Rooney writes, “It’s possible that the ban on abortion has less to do with the rights of the unborn child than with the threat to social order represented by women in control of their reproductive lives.” Laws in certain countries may be progressive, but cultural attitudes lag behind.  

“It’s possible that the ban on abortion has less to do with the rights of the unborn child than with the threat to social order represented by women in control of their reproductive lives.” —Sally Rooney

Abortion in Africa

In Africa, an estimated 21.6 million unintended pregnancies occur each year, and nearly four in 10 end in abortion. The procedure is largely prohibited or only permissible when a woman’s life is in danger, which is why Africa has the highest number of abortion-related deaths in the world. This has as much to do with restricted access to contraception as it does restrictive abortion laws. As of 2017, about 58 million women in Africa have an unmet need for birth control.

Legal reform is therefore not enough. It must come with increased access to contraception. Reducing the number of deaths caused by unsafe procedures comes with reducing the need for terminations in the first place. Better sexual education can also break down cultural barriers to reproductive rights.  

Abortion was legalized in South Africa in 1996, but about half of all abortions actually happen outside proper hospitals. Both the women seeking the procedure, and the clinicians who perform it, are shunned in the community.

Abortion was legalized in South Africa in 1996, but about half of all abortions actually happen outside proper hospitals. Both the women seeking the procedure, and the clinicians who perform it, are shunned in the community.

A 31-year-old woman from Cape Town (who wishes to remain anonymous) has had two terminations—one in a hospital after sexual assault and another in an illegal clinic after contraception failed. “The clinic was clean and it was over in four hours,” she said. “When I went to the hospital, my experience was worse. They were rude and judgmental, I had to dig around to get information, and I had to return to the hospital twice after the abortion.”

Only 264 of 3,880 health facilities in South Africa are licensed to provide abortion (according to Amnesty International), while many South African women still think that abortion is illegal. Shifts in political and religious structures may have an impact on reproductive freedoms, but there is still work to be done to decondition cultural responses to these freedoms.

How to Become an Abortion Rights Activist

Ni una menos

The group “Ni una menos” (Not One Less) is an Argentine grassroots feminist movement which has spread across Latin American. The group campaigns not just against abortions, but speaks out against gender roles, sexual harassment, gender pay gap, and sexual objectification. Image by Martin Bernetti/Agence France-Presse | The New York Times.

We can make cultural and political gains—like those witnessed in Ireland—through activism on a local, national, or international level. We can support reproductive rights and abortion advocacy organizations. We can donate to, or volunteer with, charities that provide access to contraception and sexual education in developing countries. We can write to Members of Congress, and put continual pressure on those who make decisions about our bodies. And we can keep an eye on current abortion laws around the world. Fundamentally, this isn’t just about ending unwanted pregnancies. It’s about bringing an end to the life-threatening shortcomings of women’s welfare worldwide.  

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  • > I thought that you care about women do you? Do you know what abortion really is? It is MURDER of an innocent child! You have been lied to! They tear the BABIES apart and sell them! It is not about helping women it’s about the MONEY! Please I am begging you look it up don’t do it!…. oh and they are NEVER MEDICALLY NECESSARY.

  • Abortion is shrouded in endless euphemisms such as: women’s rights (half of aborted are girls), choice (as if all choice is good and simply because you choose doesn’t make it right), reproductive freedom (reproduction already occurred), my body my choice (it is a separate individual with its own distinct dna), I can do what I like with my body (I have hands but can’t use them to strike), own unique circumstances and difficult decision (What difference does that make?? A robber has a difficult decision as he may be poor, a person may have had a difficult decision to commit a crime. If women are not expected to care for their offspring who are HUMAN, then why should I or anyone else be expected to defend any other innocents? It is illegal to have children unsupervised and neglected, is abuse to drink or use drugs whilst pregnant, is manslaughter or murder if a man causes harm to a fetus.


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