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Abortion law: Which countries have the strictest laws and what are the punishments?

The US Supreme Court appears poised to overturn the landmark ruling that led to the constitutional right to abortion in America

Katie O'Malley
Wednesday 04 May 2022 13:57
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Missouri senate passes bill to restrict abortion: Gov Mike Parson 'The unborn deserves a up-or-down vote'

The US Supreme Court appears poised to overturn a landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that enshrined abortion rights in America, a leaked draft opinion from the court has revealed.

The draft ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, suggests the court will “return the issue of abortion” to state governments and allow individual states to introduce highly restrictive anti-abortion laws - which around half of US states have already started putting into place.

Oklahoma became the latest state to approve a bill to outlaw abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, including pregnancies that are a result of rape or incest. The bill makes exceptions for medical emergencies, but some Republican senators have questioned the exception.

Nine states have laws that banned abortions before the Roe v Wade ruling which may come back into effect if the Supreme Court overturns it in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation.

The leaked document has sparked huge uproar among women and reproductive rights campaigners, many of whom condemned their constitutional rights being potentially violated with the Supreme Court’s decision.

Protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court hours after the publiation of the draft opinion on Politico, and were joined by Democrat senator Elizabeth Warren, who told reporters: “I am angry. I’m angry and upset and determined. The United States Congress can keep Roe v Wade the law of the land. They just need to do it.”

We’ve taken a look at the countries with the most restrictive abortion laws and the campaigns that are working to abolish them.

What’s the UK’s abortion law?

In England, Scotland, and Wales, the Abortion Act 1967 permits women to have an abortion up to 23 weeks and six days of pregnancy (gestation).

According to abortion provider Marie Stopes, there is no gestational limit for abortions if there’s evidence of a fatal foetal abnormality or a significant risk to a woman’s life if they continue with the pregnancy.

Abortions can only be carried out in an NHS hospital or a licensed clinic, and are usually available free of charge on the NHS. An abortion is legal if it is performed by a registered medical practitioner and that it is authorised by two doctors, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

The NHS states that there are three main ways to get an abortion on the NHS: contact an abortion provider; speaking to your GP and asking for a referral to an abortion service; and visit a contraception clinic family planning clinic; sexual health clinic or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic and asking for a referral to an abortion service.

You should not have to wait more than two weeks from your initial appointment to have an abortion.

(Reuters

The abortion procedure involves a discussion about the decision with a medical professional and the choice of two options of how a woman would like the abortion to be carried out.

A medical abortion, commonly referred to as the “abortion pill” involves taking two medications, usually 24 to 48 hours apart in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

The first pill, mifepristone, stops the hormone that allows the pregnancy to continue working. The second, misoprostol, is normally taken up to 48 hours later, and encourages the womb to contract to end the pregnancy.

Before August 2018, women in England were required to take the two pills at a clinic. Now, women in England, Scotland and Wales can take abortion pills at home.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the government allowed telemedicine for abortions, which are still available for pregnancies in the first 10 weeks of gestation. This means women can carry out their appointments over the phone at home and get the pills posted to their home address.

However, despite being made permanent in Scotland and Wales, the scheme is due to end in September 2020 in England. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) described the scheme as “safe, effective and world-leading service” and warned of “disastrous” effects on women if it comes to an end in September.

“If at the end of this six-month period the government were indeed to revoke legal permission for this service it would be a shameful betrayal of women and a decision devoid of both evidence or justice,” said Clare Murphy, the BPAS chief executive.

Until March 2020, Northern Ireland was the only country in the UK where abortion was still illegal. However, the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 finally allowed for abortion - but only under specific circumstances.

Abortion in Northern Ireland is allowed before a pregnancy reaches 12 weeks. This period increases to 24 weeks if the pregnancy becomes a risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.

It is also allowed if there is a “substantial risk” that the baby would suffer from severe fetal impairment, resulting in serious disability, and if there is a fatal fetal abnormality where the likelihood of the fetus dying before, during or shortly after birth is high.

Prior to the change, majority of women in Northern Ireland seeking an abortion had to travel to England, Scotland or Wales.

Where is abortion banned with exceptions?

Some countries that restrict the procedure do permit terminations under certain circumstances which commonly include a threat to the mother’s life and in cases of rape or incest.

Poland

Under Poland’s abortion law, terminations are only legal if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life, if there is a foetal abnormality, or when a pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.

In March 2018, thousands of pro-choice advocates took to the streets of Poland in “Black Friday” protests campaigning against plans to further tighten the abortion laws. Women's Strike group estimated that some 55,000 people attended protests in the capital.

In addition, over 200 nongovernmental organisations signed a public appeal to Polish lawmakers to reject the bill that they argued would "place women's health and lives at risk and violate Poland's international human rights obligations."

In 2016, lawmakers tried to impose a total ban on abortion, with the only exception being when a woman’s life was in danger. However, the plan was scrapped after thousands of people took to the streets in protest.

Andorra

Abortion is banned completely in Andorra, making it one of just three European countries where it is totally illegal. According to the law on abortion, a pregnant woman who performs an abortion or consents to an abortion could face a prison sentence of up to two and a-half years.

However, a person who performs an abortion with the consent of a pregnant woman is subject to imprisonment up to four years in prison and up to six if they are a physician, medical practitioner or health officer, or a person who customarily performs abortive practices.

An abortion performed without the consent of the woman is punishable by a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment.

Stop Violencies is a group campaigning for the legalisation of terminations in Andorra. Find out more about their work here.

Liechtenstein

According to the Penal Code of 1987, women who have an abortion in the principality of Liechtenstein risk one year imprisonment, except in cases where the mother's life is in danger or she is under 14 at the time she got pregnant. Doctors who carry out an abortion can go to prison for three years.

In 2011, voters rejected a plan to legalise abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy or if the child is severely disabled.

Opponents won the referendum with a majority of 514 votes, out of 11,510 ballots cast.

In response, political activists formed a citizens’ committee to revoke the prince’s right of veto. Under the Liechtenstein constitution, the committee had to gather 1,500 signatures by the to call a referendum.

A year later, Prince Alois of Liechtenstein threatened to step down from his royal duties if a citizens were successful in vetoing his power over maintaining the decriminalisation of abortion.

Which countries have a blanket ban on abortion?

Around the world there are total bans in places such as Haiti, Madagascar and Mauritania. Others include:

El Salvador

In 1998, El Salvador criminalised abortion in all circumstances.

In March, El Salvador’s Supreme Court freed three women who were imprisoned for 30 years after being accused of aborting their babies, despite they instead suffered miscarriages. Alba Rodríguez and María del Tránsito Orellana had both served nine years, while former prisoner Cinthia Rodríguez had served a 11 year prison sentence.

Amnesty International previously described El Salvador as "one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman".

You can sign a petition to call on President of the Assembly, Guillermo Gallegos, to decriminalise abortion in extreme cases here.

Malta

Malta is the only country in the EU where abortion remains illegal and prohibited in all circumstances.

Anyone found to perform an abortion (including a woman who performs one on herself or consents to someone else to perform the procedure) could face between 18 months and three years.

Meanwhile, a medical expert who performs an abortion faces a sentence of between 18 months to four years and a lifelong ban from their profession.

(AP

San Marino

San Marino imposes a total ban on abortion. In 2016, five bills (known as “Instances of Arengo” aiming to decriminalise abortion were put for a vote. The bills included one pressing the de-penalization of abortion in cases of grave danger to the woman, another wanted to permit abortions for women who became pregnant by an act of violence, and another would allow in cases where there are strong indicators of a malformed foetus.

Philippines

Abortion was criminalized through the Penal Code of 1870 under Spanish colonial rule and incorporated into the Revised Penal Code passed in 1930 under U.S. occupation of the Philippines.

The criminal provisions on abortion in the Philippines do not contain any exceptions allowing abortion, regardless if the life of the pregnant woman is at risk.

Physicians and midwives who perform abortions in the Philippines with the consent of a pregnant woman may face up to six years in prison under the Revised Penal Code.

Women who undergo abortion for any reason may be punished by imprisonment for two to six years.

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