Criminal Penalties for Abortion Rejected Across the Globe


When you live in a country where abortion rights remain a contentious issue in every election and anti-choice activists are emboldened enough to demonstrate against the birth control pill, there are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the future of reproductive freedom. But internationally, there's a glimmer of good news: Around the globe, individual citizens support abortion rights, even when their own governments criminalize abortion.

The Program on International Policy Attitudes surveyed men and women in 18 countries that collectively make up 59 percent of the world's population. In 17 out of the 18 countries, a majority of respondents rejected criminal penalties for abortion. In nine of the 18 countries, majorities said that abortion is an individual decision that governments should butt out of. Of those nine countries which thought the government should intervene in abortion rights, only a majority in one -- Indonesia -- supported criminal sanctions for women who terminate their pregnancies.

Have pro-choice values been embraced 'round the world? No. But the effects that anti-choice policies have on public health and family life around the world are difficult to deny. It's also clear that the legal status of abortion has no correlation with the abortion rate in any given country -- that is, outlawing abortion doesn't mean that it's less common. In fact, some of the countries with the highest abortion rates in the world are places where the procedure is totally outlawed. By contrast, the countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world have a few things in common: Safe, legal and accessible (often free, covered by national health care systems) abortion and contraception, plus comprehensive sexual health education and a culture that treats sex as both a pleasure and a responsibility, not a shameful act. Other things that correlate: The fact that lack of access to contraception jacks up the abortion rate, and the fact that illegal abortion often means unsafe abortion, which leads to significantly higher rates of maternal injury or death.

It's not hard to see why an increasing number of people would support abortion rights.

On average, 52 percent of those surveyed across the 18 countries support making abortion an individual decision. Forty-two percent support government interventions to discourage abortion -- but the majority of those people believe that the discouragement should come in the form of education, counseling and promotion of adoption services, not criminal penalties.

Majorities in both Poland and Mexico -- two countries with highly restrictive abortion laws -- believe that the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be left to the pregnant woman, and the government should not interfere (those majorities came in at 66 and 70 percent, respectively). Ninety-five percent of French respondents said abortion should be an individual decision, along with 81 percent in Great Britain, 69 percent in the United States, 70 percent in the Ukraine, 62 percent in Russia, and 67 percent in China.

In six other countries, majorities supported government discouragement of abortion, but criminal penalties were less popular. Indonesia is the only country surveyed where a majority (60 percent) believe that abortion should be criminalized. Egypt and Nigeria also had significant support for criminal penalties, though not majorities (45 percent and 42 respectively favoring such penalties).

Religious belief was also a factor in support of individual rights versus criminal penalties. When respondents defined themselves as very religious, their support for government intervention in abortion rights hovers around 65 percent -- by contrast, only 25 percent of those who are not very religious believe the government should discourage abortion. Christians are the least likely to support criminal penalties (8 percent) and the most likely to support leaving the decision up to the individual (65 percent). The greatest support for criminal penalties came from Muslims (31 percent).

It's nonetheless notable that, around the world, criminalizing abortion is falling out of favor, while individual choice is gaining support. Despite the best efforts of the current U.S. administration to spread their anti-choice message abroad, people around the world are saying that they want to improve public health and promote women's basic human rights. That's good news -- and in a world where 80,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion, it's incredibly necessary.

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