***Update: Since the publication of this item, Uruguay’s President Tabaré Vázquez has vetoed the legislation to liberalize Uruguay’s abortion law. It appears unlikely that the legislature will be able to overturn his veto.***

In a move aimed at reducing the harmful impact of clandestine, often unsafe abortions, Uruguay’s Senate voted on November 11 to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The lower chamber, the House of Deputies, had voted in favor of the measure the previous week. However, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez has promised to veto the legislation, leaving its enactment uncertain.

The veto threat notwithstanding, the Uruguayan legislature’s move to decriminalize abortion follows a worldwide trend: Over the past decade, 16 countries have increased the grounds on which abortions may be legally performed. Only two countries have moved in the opposite direction during that period, according to a study published in the September 2008 issue of International Family Planning Perspectives.

Some of the most notable changes in abortion policies occurred in heavily Catholic Latin America. In 2006, Colombia’s constitutional court struck down the country’s blanket prohibition of abortion to permit termination of pregnancy when a woman’s life or health is endangered, as well as in cases of rape, incest or severe fetal impairment. In 2007, the government of the federal district of Mexico City passed a law permitting abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks’ gestation, a policy that was upheld by the Supreme Court of Mexico in September 2008. Meanwhile, the only countries to remove all grounds for abortion were both in Latin America as well: El Salvador (1998) and Nicaragua (2006).

Countries with highly restrictive abortion laws often have high abortion rates. For instance, Mexico’s abortion rate increased by one-third between 1990 and 2006, despite a virtual ban on the procedure countrywide. (This study predated the change in Mexico City’s abortion law.)

Globally, abortion rates are roughly equal in countries where the procedure is legal and where it is illegal—26 and 29 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age, respectively. However, the health consequences vary greatly; abortion is generally safe where it is broadly legal and mostly unsafe where restricted. Worldwide, clandestine abortion remains one of the leading causes of maternal death and injury.

The lowest abortion rate in the world is in Western Europe (12 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44), where contraceptive services and use are widespread, and safe abortion is easily accessible and legal under broad grounds. The evidence confirms that the best way to make abortion less necessary is to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

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The global trend to liberalize abortion laws

The increase in Mexico’s abortion rate

Legal abortion in Mexico City

Facts on abortion worldwide

Unmet need for contraceptives in developing countries

The worldwide benefits of contraception