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Abortion Law beyond America
6/1/2013 4:00:31 AM
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Commenting on the recent surge of public opinion seeking change in abortion law in Ireland, Berry Kiely, a prominent pediatrician and medical consultant with the Pro Life Campaign, said, “They will be saying there are situations when it is OK to directly and intentionally kill an innocent human being.” In July 2012, doctors delayed chemotherapy treatment to a pregnant teenager suffering from leukemia in the Dominican Republic because they feared that the treatment would cause her to abort her unborn child and this would violate the nation’s strict law against abortions.
The law governing abortions here in the US as well as in other countries varies according to the societies’ moral, ethical, practical, religious, and political norms. Countries have used human rights arguments such as right to life, liberty, and security and privacy of an individual to justify laws banning abortion or allowing abortion under special extenuating circumstances. In other countries, their laws limits availability of abortion as a matter of one’s own choice, although to different extents. Many developing countries have laws prohibiting abortions in almost all circumstances. Each country has its own history of laws and the progression of changes or amendments to those laws. A major influence worldwide comes in the form of the dominant religion of the country.
Before science proved that human development begins at fertilization, the common law in England allowed abortions before ‘quickening’ i.e. when a fetus began to move on its own during pregnancy. The Lord Ellenborough’s Act of 1803 criminalized all abortions, before and after quickening. The Offences against the Person Act of 1861 continued this blanket ban on abortions and served as a model for similar laws in other countries. Beginning in the early twentieth century, countries began to legalize abortions performed to protect the life or health of the mother. The Soviet Union was the first to do so in 1920 but this law was repealed in 1936 in an effort to increase population growth. In 1955 the Soviet Union once again made abortion available on request. Within the next few years several countries under the Soviet Union’s influence, such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania did the same. The 1930s saw Germany, Iceland, Mexico, and Sweden legalize abortion in special cases. Japan legalized abortions in 1948 followed by the former Yugoslavia in 1952. The United Kingdom followed through the Abortion Act of 1967. Interestingly the Abortion Act of 1967 marked a substantial departure from the earlier law by making abortions legal up to 28 weeks. Canada, Tunisia, Austria, France, New Zealand, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium also legalized abortions in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The law in most countries in South America made abortion illegal with exceptions for rape, maternal life, health, and mental health (and/or fetal defects under Argentina’s laws). Chile does not allow abortion under any circumstance. Poland is perhaps the only country to have subsequently criminalized all abortions in the 1990s.
The law in most countries outside the USA today allow abortion on request and under certain mitigating circumstances. However, the definition of such circumstances and the time after conception up to which abortions are legal varies considerably. A United Nations report published in 2011 shows that nearly seventy percent of the world’s population of women today reside in countries where abortion is legal and obtainable on request for a range of social, economic, and personal reasons.
Ireland has traditionally carried a blanket ban on abortion that came following a referendum in 1982 and continues to remain the most restrictive in the world. Significantly, the referendum aimed to recognize ‘the right to life of the unborn’. However recently the Prime Minister of Ireland activated a latent 1992 Supreme Court ruling that authorized termination in cases where a woman’s life. Chile has similar laws that forbid abortion, but Ireland and Chile rate as the safest nations for motherhood and have the lowest abortion incidence in their respective regions. Guttmacher reports several cases of illegal and perhaps unsafe abortions in these countries do appear in the media from time to time. Spain decriminalized abortion in 1985 and abortion rates increased tenfold by 2012. One would thus mistakenly assume that restrictive laws reduce abortions and permissive laws increase abortions. The startling fact is that while some countries ban abortions and some allow free access, the rate of pregnancy termination does not change; women unable to access legally permissible abortions resort to illegal means. In a recent article in ‘The Lancet’ Gilda Sedgh and her colleagues reported that global abortion rates have stabilized at 29 and 28 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 years following a substantial decline from 1995 when the rate was 33 abortions per 1000 women. Therefore, stricter abortion laws have no effect on lowering overall rates of abortion and such laws only increase the rate of unsafe abortions. Not only is the life of an innocent unborn child killed, unsafe abortions also expose the life of the mother to grave danger.
Countries that have permissive laws that allow abortions under special circumstances, one cannot negate the chances for selective interpretation and application of the law whenever the need arises. There is evidence that doctors performed abortions in England and Spain, for example, justifying their action on ‘reasons of mental health’ even in the absence of any scientific proof linking abortion as a therapeutic indication for any mental health problems. There will always be those situations that require the law to be stretched beyond the legal limits. The question we need to answer is whether legislation is the answer to controlling abortions.
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