Why we should all care about the rise in restrictive abortion laws around the globe

Although each nation’s abortion laws are unique, the rise in restriction on abortions has consequences for women all across the globe. Read more about the transnational consequences of this trend here:

By Belinda Munyeza.

Over the last few decades, global abortion laws have changed, with the world at large seeing an increase in the liberalization of abortion laws. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (2019), there are only six countries in the world now that do not permit abortions under any circumstances. However, in more recent years, there has been a rise in restrictions being imposed on abortion laws by countries which had previously liberalized them. This trend, if continued, could have adverse effects on the accessibility of this service.

A 2018 report by the Guttmacher Institute noted that about 125 countries worldwide have some level of restriction on abortions, with 93% of the countries that have the most restrictive laws being in the developing regions of the world. However, most of the new restrictions being implemented on abortion laws are in countries within the developed regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. Some of these countries include the United States, Portugal, and Poland.

Further work by the Guttmacher Institute has noted that, in 2019, the United States implemented 58 new abortion restrictions across the country. This is the most restrictive change made in the history of American abortion law since the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Only nine states within the country maintained or liberalized their abortion laws in 2019, while 17 states increased restrictions on them. In Alabama, for example, a total ban on abortions was implemented, while in five states, including Georgia and Ohio, a gestational limit was imposed making it illegal to terminate past six weeks of pregnancy. In some states, such as Indiana, surgical abortion was banned past 14 weeks’ gestation and in four other states, bans were implemented based on the reason the abortion was sought.

Exhibiting even stricter legislation is Poland who, in 2020, proposed a bill that was successfully passed that would totally ban abortions within the country . Because of these changes, access to safe abortion services within these countries has become much more limited. What makes the situation worse is that in addition to implementing restrictions on the gestational period, reasons, and methods under which abortion is permissible, some countries have adopted further restrictions on funding for abortion services. In Portugal, for example, according to the Guardian, a bill was passed in 2015 that requires women to now fund their termination themselves, and increased the number of stringent tests women had to pass in order to even be eligible to terminate a pregnancy.

Abortion Funding Across the World

Global abortion services are mostly funded by donors. This has been the case for decades, ever since influential countries like the United States began to restrict government funding for international abortion services. The first case of this kind of restriction, according to Marie Stopes International, was in 1984 when the US “Global Gag Rule” was implemented. Under this executive order, the US government would not fund any international organizations that provided or even promoted abortion services. In 2017, then President Donald Trump expanded on the Global Gag Rule, ensuring the US government did not only continue to restrict funding for international abortion services, but also reduced funding towards other global health services that are unrelated to abortion.

The result of this restrictive executive order is that in many countries across the world, especially smaller and less developed ones, the scope of the work organizations like Marie Stopes International can do to provide safe abortion services (and other reproductive health services) has been reduced. For instance, Marie Stopes International had to close their outreach sites in Madagascar and Uganda as well as reduce the number of sites in Zimbabwe.

It seems that the reasoning behind this restriction on funding of abortion services is to discourage women from seeking abortions. However, this is not the usual outcome in countries where access to safe abortion services is restricted. Usually, abortion rates do not decrease, but rather remain steady (or even rise) as women seek other unsafe methods of termination, many of which lead to health complications. This has been the case in countries affected by the Global Gag Rule, such as Madagascar, where the Lancet (2020) reported a rise in the number of unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and women seeking treatment for complications related to unsafe abortions.

The Domino Effect of Global Abortion Laws 

Although each nation’s abortion laws are unique, the rise in restriction on abortions has consequences for women all across the globe. Read more about the transnational consequences of this trend here:

Changes in abortion laws anywhere in the world have a domino effect, whether it’s liberalization or increased restrictions. As noted in the American Journal of Sociology (2015), the liberalization of abortion laws began in the 1960s and 1970s and it spread amongst developed countries because of the influence of powerful nations, such as the United States (which initiated the movement towards liberalization). Although liberalized abortion laws were first implemented for population control in the United States and other countries such as India, the legalization of abortions allowed for more research to be conducted and for the benefits of liberalized laws to be recognized as it pertains to women’s reproductive health. This, in turn, led to more countries in Europe and Asia adopting liberalized abortion laws over the past few decades.

This kind of domino effect can happen in the opposite direction as well. As influential countries, such as the United States, begin to backtrack and restrict their abortion laws, other countries are more likely to be encouraged to make their laws stricter as well. In countries (most in Africa) which still have the strictest abortion laws in the world, the potential for change towards more liberalized laws might even be stopped in its tracks. This is a big issue for people everywhere in the world who seek, or might one day require, an abortion and other reproductive health services.

In numerous countries, such as Poland, the United States and Northern Ireland, activists and health-care providers have been fighting this trend towards restrictive abortion laws because it is getting clearer that as abortion laws become more limiting, the available providers will have less room and resources to operate safely, the result of which will be a decline in the quality of women’s reproductive health globally.

safe2choose is helping to bridge the gap by providing safe abortion information, using digital innovation, for those within restrictive contexts to access at their convenience. For more information on abortion procedures, or to speak to a counselor, visit the safe2choose site.


[1] Vogelstein, Rachel, et al. “Abortion Law: Global Comparisons.” Council on Foreign Relations, 2019, www.cfr.org/article/abortion-law-global-comparisons. Accessed January 2021.

[2] Singh, S, et al. “Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access.” New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2018, www.guttmacher.org/report/abortion-worldwide-2017. Accessed January 2021.

[3] “State Policy Trends 2019: A Wave Abortion of Bans But Some States are Fighting Back.” The Guttmacher Institute, 2019, www.guttmacher.org/article/2019/12/state-policy-trends-2019-wave-abortion-bans-some-states-are-fighting-back. Accessed 2021.

[4] “Poland Abortion: Top Court Bans Almost All Abortions.” BBC News, 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54642108. Accessed January 2021.

[5] “Portugal tightens abortion laws, forcing women to pay to end pregnancies.” The Guardian,  www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/23/portugal-tightens-abortion-laws-women-pay-end-pregnancies. Accessed January 2021.

[6] “The Global Gag Rule: A World Without Choice.” MSI Reproductive Choices, www.mariestopes.org/what-we-do/our-approach/policy-and-advocacy/the-global-gag-rule-a-world-without-choice/. Accessed January 2021.

[7] “US Global Gag Rules Increases Unsafe Abortion.” The Lancet, vol. 396, 2020, pp. 24-25,   www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30921-1/fulltext. Accessed January 2021.

[8] Boyle, Elizabeth, et al. “Abortion Liberalization in World Society.”  American Journal of Sociology, 2015, 121. 882-913. 10.1086/682827.