On Friday, Ireland will go to the polls to decide whether to lift its near-total ban on abortion.
Even if that happens, lawmakers would still have to draft a new law on whether and how abortion will be regulated. But Friday’s referendum is a big first step.
Ireland’s current abortion laws are among the most stringent in the world. Only four countries regulate the procedure more strictly, banning the procedure in all cases.
El Salvador's laws are perhaps the most draconian. In that Catholic country, it’s illegal to have an abortion under any circumstance, even if a mother’s life is in danger. Women who have an abortion or even experience a miscarriage can face up to 30 years in prison; more than 100 women have been charged under these regulations.
Nicaragua’s rules are just as rigid — women cannot get an abortion, even if their life is in danger. But they face significantly less stringent penalties for breaking the rules.
Chile once banned all abortions too, but it relaxed its laws in 2017. Now, women may get an abortion if a pregnancy endangers their life, if the fetus is not viable or if the pregnancy resulted from rape. Brazilian lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering new legislation that would ban access to all abortions, even in cases of rape and for women whose lives are in danger.
Malta, where 98 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, is the only country in the European Union with a full prohibition. Unsurprisingly, Vatican City, not a member of the EU, also bans the procedure.
The countries with total bans house 6 percent of the world’s 1.64 billion women of reproductive age, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
It's relatively rare for a country to ban abortion entirely. But that doesn't mean women have easy access to the procedure in most places. The vast majority of countries put at least some restrictions on abortion access.
A 2018 Guttmacher Institute report surveyed the legal landscape for abortion in 2017. They found that 39 countries allow abortion only when needed to save a woman’s life. Thirty-six also allow abortion to protect the mother’s physical health. Twenty-four other countries explicitly specify a threat to a woman’s mental health as grounds for legal abortion. A dozen others grant women the right to an abortion if they can’t afford to raise a child.
Just 60 countries provide legal access to safe abortions. The vast majority of those places are in the developed world.
The evidence suggests, though, that that’s changing. Between 2000 and 2017, 28 countries changed their abortion laws. In all but one case, they made it easier for women to access abortions. The chart below, by Guttmacher, shows how laws (and norms) are shifting: