Evidence shows that laws that restrict abortion do not eliminate its practice, but instead result in women having clandestine abortions, which are likely to be unsafe. It is important to periodically assess changes in the legal status of abortion around the world.
The criteria for legal abortion as of 2019 for 199 countries and territories were used to distribute them along a continuum of six mutually exclusive categories, from prohibited to permitted without restriction as to reason. The three most common additional legal grounds that fall outside of this continuum—rape, incest and fetal anomaly—were also quantified. Patterns by region and per capita gross national income were examined. Changes resulting from law reform and judicial decisions since 2008 were assessed, as were changes in policies and guidelines that affect access.
Legality correlated positively with income: The proportions of countries in the two most-liberal categories rose uniformly with gross national income. From 2008 to 2019, 27 countries expanded the number of legal grounds for abortion; of those, 21 advanced to another legality category, and six added at least one of the most common additional legal grounds. Reform resulted from a range of strategies, generally involving multiple stakeholders and calls for compliance with international human rights norms.
The global trend toward liberalization continued over the past decade; however, even greater progress is needed to guarantee all women’s right to legal abortion and to ensure adequate access to safe services in all countries.
Lisa Remez is senior research writer, and Susheela Singh is distinguished scholar and Vice President for Global Science and Policy Integration—both at the Guttmacher Institute, New York. Katherine Mayall is Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Global Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, New York.