As women in the United States stand on the verge of possibly losing their constitutional right to abortion, courts in many other parts of the world have been moving in the opposite direction.
When the final decision of the US Supreme Court is handed down, expected in late June or early July, the world will be watching. The Biden administration’s budget for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) includes money for “increased access to maternal health care and voluntary family planning.”
In a report from late 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations tracked nearly 30 cases of countries this century expanding access to abortion services, with only a handful choosing to tighten restrictions.
It is not yet clear what impact the leaked draft opinion suggesting the US Supreme Court could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wades from 1973.
But for women’s activists who have for years led campaigns demanding open access to abortion, often looking to the United States as a model, it is a discouraging sign and a reminder that hard-won gains are not necessarily permanent.
“While moves to decriminalize and legalize abortion in places like Argentina, Ireland, Mexico and Colombia in recent years have been a huge victory for the world community,” said Agnes Callamard, secretary general of human rights group Amnesty International, in a statement, “there are grim signs that the United States is out of step with the progress the rest of the world is making in protecting sexual and reproductive rights.”
In Colombia, the Constitutional Court in February legalized the procedure up to the 24th week of pregnancy, part of a broader trend seen in heavily Catholic areas of Latin America.
The February ruling in Colombia established a broad right for women to have an abortion within 24 weeks, whereas previously they could only do so in specific cases, such as if the fetus had malformations or the pregnancy was the result of rape. Abortion is still allowed after that period under those special circumstances.
‘A terrible precedent’
The decision fell short of the hopes of advocates for full decriminalization, but Catalina Martínez Coral, director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which was among the groups that litigated the abortion case in Colombia’s Supreme Court, he said still left the country with the “most progressive legal framework in Latin America.”
Martínez Coral worries about the possible American change.
“It is a terrible precedent for the next few years for the region and the world,” he said.
Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice held last year that it was unconstitutional to punish abortion. As the highest court in the country, its ruling bars all jurisdictions from charging a woman with a crime for terminating a pregnancy.
Yet laws banning abortion are still on the books in most of Mexico’s 32 states, and nongovernmental organizations that have long pushed for decriminalization are pressing state legislatures to reform them. Abortion was already available in Mexico City and some states.
To the south, in Argentina, legislators approved a bill at the end of 2020 that legalizes abortion until the 14th week and then for circumstances similar to those described in the Colombian ruling.
It is also widely available in Cuba and Uruguay.
But the expansion of access to abortion has not extended to all of Latin America, with many countries restricting it to certain circumstances, such as Brazil, the most populous nation in the region, where it is allowed only in cases of rape, risk to the life of the woman and certified cases. of the birth defect anencephaly. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who will seek a new term in October, recently said he sees legalizing abortion as a public health problem, drawing criticism in a country where few approve of the procedure.
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Other places have total bans with no exceptions, such as Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Courts in the latter have handed down lengthy prison sentences to women for aggravated murder even in cases where prosecutors suspect a miscarriage was actually an abortion.
Many African nations also maintain outright bans, but in October 2021, Benin legalized abortion in most circumstances up to 12 weeks. That significantly increased safe access to the procedure after the health minister reported that almost 200 women die each year from complications of clandestine abortions. Previously, abortion was allowed in cases of rape or incest, risk to the life of the woman or serious fetal malformation.
Liberalization in Europe, Israel
Most European countries have legalized abortion, including predominantly Catholic ones. Ireland did so in 2018, followed by tiny San Marino in an electoral referendum last fall. It remains illegal in Andorra, Malta and Vatican City, while Poland toughened its abortion laws last year.
It has also been widely available in Israel since 1978 and relatively uncontroversial, permitted by law before week 24 with the approval of hospital “termination committees” consisting of medical professionals including at least one woman.
Laws and interpretations vary throughout the Muslim world.
Abortion has been legal up to 12 weeks in Tunisia for decades, but in Iran it has been banned since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Last year, the head of Cairo’s main institution of Islamic clerics, Al-Azhar, said the Abortion is not the solution, even in cases where a child is likely to be seriously ill or disabled.