Abortion-Roe-Worldwide-foreign-policy-infographic
Abortion-Roe-Worldwide-foreign-policy-infographic

Infographic

Roe Abolition Makes U.S. a Global Outlier

Almost 50 years ago, the United States liberalized abortion laws, and the world followed suit. Today, it joins Iran, North Korea, and Russia in rolling back reproductive rights.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion. In a 6-3 ruling, with all three of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointees voting in the majority, the court upheld a Mississippi state law that banned abortions after a gestational age of 15 weeks. That hands legal authority for abortions to states, about half of which will enact all but total bans on the medical procedure.

With the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the United States became a world leader in liberalizing abortion laws, and scores of other countries followed suit in the decades afterward. Although a handful of countries in recent years have reversed these laws, Foreign Policy analysis shows a worldwide trend toward greater reproductive freedom for women, not less, which makes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision—and the United States in general—an outlier. Abortion is still largely illegal in many countries coded as improving access—but exceptions in cases such as rape, incest, or saving the life of the pregnant woman have been made.

 

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion. In a 6-3 ruling, with all three of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointees voting in the majority, the court upheld a Mississippi state law that banned abortions after a gestational age of 15 weeks. That hands legal authority for abortions to states, about half of which will enact all but total bans on the medical procedure.

With the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the United States became a world leader in liberalizing abortion laws, and scores of other countries followed suit in the decades afterward. Although a handful of countries in recent years have reversed these laws, Foreign Policy analysis shows a worldwide trend toward greater reproductive freedom for women, not less, which makes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision—and the United States in general—an outlier. Abortion is still largely illegal in many countries coded as improving access—but exceptions in cases such as rape, incest, or saving the life of the pregnant woman have been made.

 

In the last three decades, as mapped by Foreign Policy, at least 59 countries have expanded abortion access …

Map of increased abortion access worldwide
Map of increased abortion access worldwide

 

 … whereas just around 11 countries have restricted it. Among the handful of states that have restricted access are long-term U.S. opponents, such as Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

 


Global Abortion Laws

Hover or click on each country for more information.

  • Legalized with no change since 1990
  • Illegal in most cases with no change since 1990
  • Increased abortion access since 1990
  • Decreased abortion access since 1990

 

Small island countries as well as disputed and dependent territories are not included in this visualization.

 


Latin America

Latin America has seen some dramatic changes against a backdrop of previously highly conservative laws that often made no exceptions for abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. The laws’ persistence was largely thanks to the role of the Catholic Church, though anti-abortion politics have been taken up by U.S.-backed evangelicals as well. The strictness of the laws left the continent as the only region where births by girls under age 15 were rising—and helped spark public backlash.

Latin America’s press for reproductive rights are part and parcel of a wider feminist movement linked to left-wing parties. In Argentina, where abortion was legalized up until the 14th week of pregnancy in December 2020, advocates argued for it on class and public health grounds. In Chile, where a push for legalization narrowly failed, many activists hope that the country’s assembly will use its new draft constitution to make abortion a human right.

Other countries have taken small steps. Abortion was decriminalized in Mexico last September, but it is not yet legal nationwide. Ecuador has decriminalized abortion but only under specific circumstances, such as rape, and with access time dependent by region, allowing rural women 16 weeks as opposed to urban women’s 12 weeks. And some old structures have staying power: Among Caribbean nations, such as Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda, colonial-era abortion rules set by Britain’s 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, backed up by powerful evangelical Christian lobbies, are still the law.

 


Europe

In Europe, more than 80 percent of countries have legalized or decriminalized abortion, several increasing access since 1990. Decriminalization was common between the 1960s and 1980s, but every country still sets either a time limit or requires medical gatekeeping. The most notable recent victory was Ireland, where voters repudiated the country’s constitutional ban on abortion—introduced in 1983—in a landslide referendum. The few small countries where abortion remains illegal, such as Andorra and Malta, largely sustain the laws on paper because travel for legal abortion in neighboring countries is easily available.

The glaring exception is Poland, where the country’s constitutional court blocked one of the last available avenues for legal abortion last year. But although Poland’s abortion ban is still in place, the movement’s political impact is already evident, wrote historian Joy Neumeyer last November, and a burgeoning feminist movement may change the law again.

 


Post-Soviet

In the post-Soviet world, the Soviet Union’s own tangled history with abortion has left behind a legal structure that was, until recently, surprisingly persistent. In 1920, the Soviet Union was the first country to fully decriminalize medically supervised abortion while still declaring it a “social evil” that would disappear as the country moved toward full communism. A 1936 decree made the procedure illegal again due to then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s fears of demographic decline before female doctors fought for relegalization in 1955.

Although state propaganda still targeted abortion, it remained legal until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—and the law remains in force in Soviet successor states. Both Belarus and Russia have tightened access, and Russia looks set to press the campaign further. But it’s Turkmenistan that has seen the most dramatic recent revision as part of a sweeping Taliban-esque campaign against women’s rights that seeks to restrict them to the home.

 


Africa

Africa remains the continent with the lowest access to legal abortion, with the vast majority of countries maintaining colonial-era laws against the procedure. Those bans are maintained through a combination of patriarchal politics and the influence of still-growing missionary faiths, especially U.S.-backed evangelicals.

Yet, a wave of new laws in the 2000s and the 2010s, while falling short of decriminalizing abortion, introduced exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or saving a woman’s life. Campaigners continue to press for reform but fear that a change in U.S. law could seriously affect their cause. Only four countries, however—Zambia, Cape Verde, South Africa, and Tunisia—broadly allow abortion (with gestational limits of 12 weeks). South Africa’s law, introduced in 1996, resulted in a significant decrease in maternal mortality.

 


Asia-Pacific

A majority of Asians have access to abortion—thanks mostly to legalization in India and China. In China, the battle for reproductive rights has taken on a different form, with campaigners—and anti-abortion American activists—fighting against the forced sterilizations and coerced abortions used by the Chinese government as part of its family planning program since the 1980s. Although national policy has changed, forced abortion and sterilization remains a major part of China’s campaign of genocide in Xinjiang.

India has its own record of forced sterilization, which continues to be imposed on poor and lower-caste groups, but it has provided broad abortion access since 1971 as well as liberalized abortion laws and provided better funding and access in the last three decades. South Korea and Thailand were latecomers, decriminalizing abortion only in 2020 and 2021, respectively. In contrast, uncertain reports suggest that North Korea has banned abortion due to fears of demographic decline.

Strong abortion bans in Asia are generally the result of religious conservatism. Almost no Middle Eastern country has legal abortion laws, save for medical emergencies, with the exception of Israel. The same goes for Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, and Pakistan—which also has one of the world’s highest illegal abortion rates. The Catholic Philippines, meanwhile, has one of the world’s strictest anti-abortion laws.

 

Research and editing by Nina Goldman, Chloe Hadavas, Kelly Kimball, Christina Lu, Allison Meakem, James Palmer, Shannon Schweitzer, Alexandra Sharp, and Mary Yang. Graphics and creative direction by Lori Kelley and Sara Stewart.

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