World to Governments: Women Shouldn’t Be Imprisoned for Abortion

Abortion shouldn’t be a crime, according to opinions of the majority of people polled in some of the world’s most populous countries. released data yesterday that shows that only 18 percent of people polled in 18 countries favor criminal penalties such as fines and imprisonment as a means to prevent abortion. Yet the laws of most countries that restrict abortion make criminals out of providers who perform abortion as well as women who seek abortion.

In other words, even if they disagree with a woman’s decision to have an abortion, people don’t want to see their sisters and daughters jailed for their reproductive health decisions.

The discord between the law and people’s opinions is starkly illustrated in an advocacy video created by Ipas Brazil, who is working to change the restrictive law that imprisons a woman for up to three years for "consenting" to an abortion. The video talks to people on the street and asks first whether they are for or against abortion (all answer "against"), then whether they know someone who has had an abortion (yes, they do) and finally, whether that person should be imprisoned.

This last question is met with confused and sometimes surprised silence. The final message of the video? "Think about it."



It’s in Portuguese – but you’ll get the gist of it!


Certainly with polling, the choice of questions is everything. And the questions chosen by and featured in the Ipas Brazil video bring to light what it means to make abortion illegal.

We’re not talking about simple disproval of someone’s health choices – abortion laws aren’t an abstract policy expression, like the Sense of the Senate. Abortion is penalized with fines, or in many countries, prison, which is one of the ways that governments control people’s choices (here in the U.S. we’ve got the Hyde and Helms amendments).

Women have abortions, regardless of the law. And, since most of us know someone who has had an abortion, the thought of criminal penalties for that woman or for the medical provider who helped her is very unsettling, regardless of whether we think abortion is okay.

The polling data released today shows that public opinion is on the side of less government interference with women’s choices around abortion. In Poland, Mexico and South Korea – three countries with restrictive abortion laws – the majority of those polled stated that decisions about abortion should be left to the individual.

Here in the U.S., where Congress recently enacted and the Supreme Court upheld a two-year jail sentence for doctors who perform a specific abortion procedure, only eight percent favored criminal enforcement of abortion laws. 69% of those polled were in favor of leaving the decision to the individual. polls in 18 countries, which they purport to represent 59 percent of the world’s population. However, there is a dearth of opinions from places where unsafe abortion is a high contributor to maternal mortality. Half of the world’s 67,000 deaths from unsafe abortion take place in Africa, but Nigeria is the only African country represented in the data. More data from Africa and the other parts of the global south, where restrictive abortion laws are major contributors to the loss of women’s lives, would have made for interesting comparison.

That people are opposed to the criminalization of one of the most common medical interventions is at the very least, logical. At most, the polls can contribute to a growing movement to reform abortion laws around the world.

To ask the question of criminalization helps move the discussion beyond the rhetoric of morality, maybe even beyond the statistics of unsafe abortion. Restricting abortion by law can make a criminal out of an often desperate woman who seeks medical care or the provider that helps her. When advocating for legal reform, how the law treats individuals we know is something everyone should think about.

For the Center for Reproductive Rights’s map and fact sheet of abortion laws worldwide, click the image below!

Center for Reproductive Rights's Map of Abortion Laws WorldwideCenter for Reproductive Rights’s Map of Abortion Laws Worldwide

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  • emily-douglas

    The US doesn’t like taking its cues on legal issues from the international community, but this should be and is highly relevant to the discussion of abortion criminalization here in the US, too, of course. New campaigns such as the "How Much Time Should She Do, John McCain?" ad put the question directly to those who oppose legal abortion. If anti-choicers truly think abortion is murder, it won’t be enough to lock up doctors. And as you say, Patty, let’s be realistic — abortion’s legality has nothing to do with its occurrence, just its safety.

  • invalid-0

    We need to change the dialogue when it comes to these kinds of discussions. Unfortunately the management of this site are not helping in this regard.
    We need to be specific as to what we are discussing. For example the term “reproductive rights,” encompasses a broad umbrella of rights– from basic contraceptive rights to the right to terminate a fetus at any and all of the various stages of fetal development.
    If one queried the average American/European, they would state that contraception should be an open right to all individuals–both male and female.
    If however one asked the same person if they are comfortable with abortion before the second trimester, the answers would be significantly different. If you asked this same individual whether they were confortable with abortion at the six month interval, then most would not be so postively enthusiastic in their response. If you asked this same individual as to whether they would be comfortable aborting a perfectly healthy fetus at the 9th month of pregnancy, very few would be comfortable with this decision under any circumstances. Furthermore, if you asked men–both married and single–that if they were the father would they be comfortable allowing a woman to make these decsions completely on her own without any right on their part to participate, you would get an even more negative reaction and even less consensus.
    Whether the law would give women the right to make her own decision to abort a fetus at and after the sixth month of pregnancy is not as important as asking if there are any doctors that would even consider doing the procedure unless there were mitigating circumstances.
    And, by far, the majority of people would suggest prison time for a woman making such a decision–including a doubly long sentence for any physician participating.
    Physicians in the USA for example pretty much take a negative view of this. Their argument usually centers around their professional oath to give life not to take it.
    Again, let’s get our facts straight before we make these sweeping,invalid and false generalizations.

  • invalid-0

    The argument above has many logical flaws in it, particularly with regards to physician´s opinion on abortion. There is no logic in requiring that the term “reproductive rights” be more specific. Reproductive rights is what we have as a result of analyzing the realm of human sexuality and reproduction under the light of human rights language. Human rights are broad and encompassing of multiple areas, and the only thing they have in common is that they belong to all persons and that they are interdependent. The management of this site is right in not limiting the term sexual and reproductive rights, especially since human rights as a whole are an evolving structure built upon international consensus to further humanity’s well being and possibilities of peaceful coexistence.
    As for the arguments on doctors being unwilling to perform abortions, the writer above seems to think that for this statement the facts that she/he requires of other people are unnecessary. Physicians have professional duties to their patients, and those duties are also framed by the society they practice their profession in. In societies where abortion is penalized, and where conservative propaganda strives to cast a negative light on it, many physicians are reluctant to be outspoken about their own personal attitudes about abortion if this might prove harmful to their practice. Medicine is just one fo the many fields of social interest, and health is just one of the goods society must balance against other goods it cherishes. Public policy, laws, and every other instrument by which society as a whole moves towards greater well being should not be subject to an individual group´s attitudes.