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Abortion remains contentious in 2021

December 29, 2021

Poland has virtually banned abortion, and the United States is also looking at tightening restrictions. But other countries, like Thailand and Benin, have started to loosen their restrictive measures. An overview.

 Demo for and against abortion,a crowd of women wearing facemasks
Around the world in 2021, people came out to march for abortion rights — as here in Bogota, Colombia in NovemberImage: Fernando Vergara/AP/picture alliance

Access to abortion has become easier over the decades, according to Leah Hoctor, the senior regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. She said that, with some exceptions, the global trend clearly points at liberalization. Several countries saw developments on the controversial issue over the last year.

Mexico: Penalizing abortion ruled unconstitutional

In September, the Supreme Court in Mexico, Latin America's second most populous country, declared an absolute ban on abortion unconstitutional. The right of women to reproductive self-determination is to be valued more highly than the protection of the fetus, the court said. With the ruling, the judges overturned an abortion ban in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila.

The court ruled that abortion performed in the early stages of pregnancy — without defining that stage more clearly — as well as in cases of rape, or in cases of fetal viability or where the woman's health is in danger, may not be criminalized. As a result, many of the country's 31 states were forced to relax abortion legislation to comply with Mexico's first-ever nationwide regulation.

Elsewhere in Latin America, abortions are only legal in Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Guyana and French Guiana.

El Salvador: The case of Manuela

Abortion is prohibited in the small Central American country, and those who violate the law can be punished with long prison sentences.

A map showing abortion laws around the world, as of February 2021
Map accurate as of February 2021

But the case of a woman known only as Manuela has sparked some change. She suffered a miscarriage in 2008, and was sentenced to prison because authorities accused her of having had an abortion. The woman died of cancer while serving her 30-year sentence.

In a landmark ruling this year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Manuela died because she did not receive proper health care while in prison, which violated her right to life, health and judicial protections. In its ruling, the court said the state must make full reparations to the woman's family and reform its legal and health care policies. Human rights activists have called the ruling a beacon of hope for women in El Salvador and other countries in the region with strict abortion laws.

According to Leah Hoctor, bans and restrictions don't really help lower abortion rates. Instead, they just raise the risk of people choosing to undergo riskier procedures, with women who can afford it going abroad for an abortion.

US: Ready to overturn Roe v. Wade?

In the United States, abortion is handled differently depending on the state. Abortion legislation in California is comparatively liberal, unlike in Texas, which passed legislation in September banning abortions after the detection of what anti-abortion campaigners call a fetal heartbeat, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The strict law provides no exceptions, even in the case of rape or incest.

Both the new regulation in Texas and tightened laws in Mississippi and other states could still be overturned by the Supreme Court. In the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade case, the court declared unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion unconstitutional. That ruling stipulated that abortions are generally permitted until the fetus is viable outside the womb, which is about 24 weeks into pregnancy.

These days, however, a majority of justices on the Supreme Court are conservative, so it's doubtful whether the court will put conservative states in their place. The court might even overturn or restrict Roe v. Wade; a decision is expected in mid-2022.

Poland: Society split over restrictions

New Polish abortion legislation, among the most restrictive in Europe, came into force at the beginning of 2021. In a controversial ruling, the Constitutional Court said that terminating pregnancies due to fetal defects should be banned, essentially implementing a near total ban on abortion.

Close-up of a woman's face, with red marks on her cheeks and forehead
In Poland, activists took to the streets after the death of a pregnant womanImage: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Polish society has been split over issue. Supporters of the right to abortion organized several mass protests throughout the year, most recently in early November after the death of a 30-year-old pregnant woman, who died of septic shock after being denied an abortion despite severe complications.

Abortion-rights activists and the Catholic Church want to further tighten the laws, and are pushing a legislative initiative that would ban terminating a pregnancy even if it results from rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger. The Polish parliament recently rejected the bill in its first reading, but it's unlikely the country's conservative forces will be satisfied with that outcome.

Germany: Measures still 'stigmatize' women

Germany's criminal code outlaws abortion, but women do not face penalties for going through with the procedure — if they get mandatory counseling within 12 weeks after conception, if the pregnancy creates health risks, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

The new Social Democrat-led coalition government plans to get rid of a controversial law banning advertisement for abortions. Currently, doctors who want to inform women about the procedure online face legal consequences.

Man in scrubs stands by a hospital bed with a patient under the covers
In Germany, abortion is still outlawed but generally not punishedImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Even if women in Germany technically have access to abortion, they still face obstacles, said Hoctor, arguing that these measures still serve to "stigmatize" women.

Thailand: Only legal in the first trimester

In early 2021, Thailand's parliament voted by a large majority to allow abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Previously, with some exceptions, the procedure was considered a criminal offense and could carry prison time. Fines and imprisonment are still possible, if the 12-week period is exceeded.

Ahead of the vote, Shine Waradhammo, a Buddhist monk and LGBTQ activist, campaigned for the decriminalization of abortion. The move angered many people, in a country where Buddhism is by far the most widespread religion. Like many faiths, Buddhism is highly critical of abortion.

Benin: Groundbreaking law a rarity in Africa

Despite opposition from the Catholic Church, the Beninese parliament approved a new law in October that helped facilitate abortion. Ratification by the constitutional court is considered a formality.

Danger of illegal abortions in Kenya

Previously only allowed on a very limited basis, abortions in the West African country will now be legal if the pregnancy "is likely to aggravate or cause a situation of material, educational, professional or moral distress incompatible with the interest of the woman and/or the unborn child."

The law will "ease the pain of many women who, faced with the distress of an unwanted pregnancy, find themselves obliged to risk their lives by using unsafe abortion methods," said Health Minister Benjamin Hounkpatin. He estimated that unsafe abortions are responsible for 20% of maternal deaths nationwide.

In many neighboring countries in Africa, abortions are only possible under very strict conditions and are seen as a social taboo.

This article was originally in German