Mapping Progress — and the Challenges Ahead — in Abortion Law Reform

The erosion of reproductive freedoms endangers many; their restoration is of vital importance to all.

For nearly 20 years, the Center for Reproductive Rights has stood up for women around the globe, winning landmark victories that secure vital protections of women’s inalienable human rights to health, dignity, equality, and full reproductive autonomy.

Over that time, we’ve seen—and played an instrumental role in bringing about—great progress: Dozens of countries have liberalized their abortion laws over the past two decades, while only a handful have tightened such restrictions. We’ve won many landmark victories ensuring the recognition of reproductive rights as human rights. And today, more than 60 percent of the world’s people live in countries where abortion is permitted either for a wide range of reasons or without restriction as to reason.

This is undeniable progress.

Even so, nearly 40 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where women lack total autonomy in making decisions about their reproductive health and future. Clearly, there is much more to do.

This week, the Center for Reproductive Rights is launching an updated version of The World’s Abortion Laws a map that illustrates where every country falls on a scale that begins with injustice and suffering, and ends with freedom in reproductive decision making and ends with outright oppression.

The map is a testament to the progress in abortion law reform that has occurred globally since 1994, when 179 governments adopted the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development. This groundbreaking accord linked these countries’ duties under international treaties to their obligations to support women’s reproductive rights and to prevent unsafe abortions.

We have focused on the legal status of abortion because it is a crucial indicator of women’s ability to exercise the full range of their reproductive rights—though, of course, there’s much more to the big picture. In many countries, a great divide exists between what the law requires and the practical reality of a woman’s ability to terminate a pregnancy.

Too many governments fail to implement the reforms that have become law. During the past several years, an increasingly vocal, well-funded, and globally organized opposition has been relentless in launching attacks aimed at undermining reproductive rights by choking off access to the full range of reproductive health care services. And anti-choice lawmakers, spurred by this growing network of anti-choice zealots, craft a litany of barriers to obstruct the free and full exercise of these rights.

Legislative obstacles require women to sit through anti-choice propaganda couched as “counseling,” to delay abortion procedures for mandatory waiting periods, and to get written consent for an abortion from their parents or husbands. And, quite often, especially in the U.S., government officials strip funding for reproductive health services out of budgets and restrict their coverage in insurance policies, making affordability itself a significant barrier for many.

These attacks take an undeniable toll. In countries where abortion is highly restricted, study after study has shown that women will find a way to end unwanted pregnancies regardless of whether they have to go outside the law to do so, and even when doing so comes with a profound risk to their health and their lives. About 13 percent of maternal deaths—47,000 in 2008—are attributable to unsafe abortions. These deaths are entirely preventable.

The Center for Reproductive Rights fights hundreds of anti-choice laws proposed every year, both here in the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, we stake new ground in the countries where women face dire choices about their health every day and desperately need protection. We push all countries to expand access to affordable reproductive health services that can diminish maternal mortality and poverty.

Our success on all of these fronts, as quickly evidenced by looking at our new map of the world, has engendered a global community in which women are progressively safer, healthier, and exercising more freedoms than at any time in history.

Looking at our new map of the world, it’s quickly evident that the scope of this struggle is immense—and that the urgency of winning the battles we are fighting cannot be overstated.

The erosion of reproductive freedoms endangers many; their restoration is of vital importance to all.