Erosion of abortion rights gathers pace around the world as US signals new era

A leaked supreme court draft ruling shows the US is set to end 50 years of a woman’s right to choose. Elsewhere, the battle still rages

In 2022, abortion remains one of the most controversial and bitterly contested ethical and political battlegrounds. It is illegal for women to terminate their pregnancies in any circumstance in 24 countries, with a further 37 restricting access in any case except when the mother’s life is in danger.

As a leaked document signals that the US supreme court is poised to strike down the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade, millions of American women face losing their access to legal abortions, joining millions more living in those countries rejecting a woman’s right to choose.

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), unsafe abortions kill more than 47,000 people every year, with five million hospitalised for complications such as bleeding or infection.

WHO data also shows that banning abortions has little or no effect on abortion rates throughout the world.

Latin America

Latin America has some of the world’s most extreme anti-abortion laws. Abortion is illegal under any circumstances in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Since 1998, at least 140 women in El Salvador, where abortion is punishable with up to 35 years imprisonment, have been charged under anti-abortion laws. Many of them had suffered a miscarriage.

In Brazil, under the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, access to abortion – only legal in the country on the grounds of rape, severe foetal defects and women’s health – has been curtailed. In 2020, the country introduced new legislation that requires medical staff to inform the police of rape survivors seeking the procedure.

However, other countries on the continent have broadened access to legal abortions. In February, Colombia decriminalised abortion, while Chile signalled that wider access to abortions may be enshrined in its new constitution.

A mass of protesters appears like a green swirl from above
Pro-choice activists calling for decriminalising abortion raise green handkerchiefs as they rally outside the Argentinian Congress in Buenos Aires in 2019. Photograph: Tomas F Cuesta/AP

In 2020, Argentina legalised abortion on request in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Uruguay passed similar legislation, allowing abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy, in 2012.


Africa has the highest death rate related to unsafe abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, with 92% of women of reproductive age in the region having restricted access to legal terminations. The Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that the deaths of up to 15,000 women a year could be prevented by improving access to safe abortions across the continent.

In several countries, including Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal, abortion is completely illegal. According to the Association of Senegalese Women Lawyers, 19% of female prisoners in Senegal in 2015 were incarcerated on the grounds of abortion or infanticide.

However, the number of African countries that allow abortion on request is growing. In 2021, Benin became the seventh country in the continent to legalise the procedure in the first trimester.


Nearly all European countries offer legal abortions, yet it remains completely illegal in three microstates: Andorra, Malta and Vatican City. However, convictions in these countries remain rare.

Poland is the only country where access to abortion is highly restricted. After a legislative ban was introduced in 2021, abortion can only be carried out when the pregnancy was caused by an illegal act, such as rape or incest, or when it threatens a woman’s health. In reality, though, it is difficult to secure a legal abortion on the grounds of rape, with fewer than five legal abortions a year carried out for this reason. Even when a woman’s health is at risk, doctors have become reluctant to carry out an abortion, leading to several deaths.

In December, Poland also announced it is planning to introduce a centralised register of pregnancies that would oblige doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages to the government.

In Romania, women are finding it increasingly difficult to access their legal right to abortion, with doctors refusing to provide the service. A 2019 survey found that only 25% of hospitals offered to carry out the procedure on request.

A sticker on a pole with writing in Polish
A sticker in Warsaw with the phone number of an abortion rights organisation. It says: ‘Abortion Without Borders. You are not alone.’ Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian


According to the WHO, more than half of all unsafe abortions occur in Asia, most of them in south and central Asia. Abortion remains completely illegal in Laos and the Philippines.

The Philippines’ ban is still based on colonial-era laws introduced by the Spanish in 1870. An additional law passed in 1987 obliges the government to place equal weight on protecting the “life of the unborn from conception” as on the life of the mother. Reproductive services are also severely curtailed, with emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill, banned across the country.

A woman who has an abortion in the Philippines risks up to six years in prison. While there is no collected data on how many are convicted on abortion-related offences, reports of such cases in local media are not rare.


Weronika Strzyżyńska

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists
Campaigners fear ban emboldens anti-choice governments as more aggressive opposition, better organised and funded, spreads from US

Lizzy Davies

18, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
The year's top development stories: 2017 in review
As Donald Trump cut funding for family planning and people from east Africa to Yemen went hungry, peace finally gained a foothold in Colombia

Lucy Lamble

25, Dec, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Zika epidemic restrictions promote ‘violence against women’ warns report
Amnesty International accuses governments in Latin America of dangerous levels of discrimination against women by restricting contraception and abortion

Jonathan Watts Latin America correspondent

07, Mar, 2016 @5:35 PM

Article image
‘If you love or are a woman, don’t go to Malta,’ say couple in abortion drama
After her ‘babymoon’ became a tragic medical crisis, Andrea Prudente wants to use her story to oppose bans on abortion

Megan Clement

28, Jun, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Zika outbreak raises fears of rise in deaths from unsafe abortions
Campaigners urge governments in Latin America to rethink bans on abortion and make contraception widely available

Sarah Boseley and Bruce Douglas in Rio de Janeiro

29, Jan, 2016 @8:07 PM

Article image
Killed by abortion laws: five women whose stories we must never forget
As the US supreme court threatens to undo 49 years of access to safe and legal terminations, five women who died because of bans on abortion stand as warnings of what is at stake globally

Joe Parkin Daniels, Sarah Johnson, Weronika Strzyżyńska, Kaamil Ahmed and Mercy Kahenda

07, May, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Anna bought abortion pills via social media. Now, like thousands of other Filipinas, she is dead
The case of one 20-year-old from Manila reveals the dangerous role of online sellers of illicit methods in a country where terminations are outlawed

Rebecca Ratcliffe and Guill Ramos

04, Jul, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘You can’t cancel Pride’: the fight for LGBTQ+ rights amid the pandemic
Lockdown hit LGBTQ+ communities hard but even as Pride events are called off there is hope and a promise that the parades will return

Lizzy Davies

29, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
There are reasons to be cheerful ... LGBTI rights gains in unlikely countries | Peter Tatchell
Iraq, Tunisia and Lebanon have recently made progressive steps forward in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex human rights

Peter Tatchell

20, Feb, 2017 @10:05 AM

Article image
Is the world finally waking up to intersex rights?
A landmark directive in Chile last month said doctors should stop ‘normalisation’ surgery, but tackling the global systematic, societal and cultural abuse against intersex people is an uphill battle

Naomi Larsson

10, Feb, 2016 @11:03 AM