The Countries With The Most Brutal Abortion Laws

In 2018, there are still countries that jail women for up to 40 years for terminating a pregnancy.

What you need to know
  • Ireland overturned its ban on abortion in a historic May 25 referendum
  • In many developing countries, women's reproductive rights remain nearly non-existent
  • These five countries still ban abortions in all circumstances, regardless of risk to the mother's health, rape, incest, or foetal abnormality

On May 25, Irish citizens overturned the country's ban on abortion by a landslide margin in a historic referendum vote.

The result was hailed a "quiet revolution" by the country's PM, repealing Ireland's eighth constitutional amendment recognising mothers' and unborn foetuses' equal right to life.

Now, new laws allowing abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and up to the 24th week in exceptional circumstances are expected to be enacted by the end of the year.

Until last week, the predominantly Catholic country had some of the strictest abortion laws on the planet, only allowing women to terminate pregnancies if their lives were at risk -- a progressive change only made in 2013 -- but not in cases of rape, incest or the health or abnormality of the foetus.

The 66.4 percent to 33.3 percent 'Yes' vote came off the back of an impassioned years-long campaign by women's rights advocates, while the referendum saw thousands of Irish citizens returning #hometovote from countries around the world.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 26: A Yes voter breaks down in tears as the result of the Irish referendum on the 8th amendment. (Photo: Getty Images)

Abortion has long been a deeply divisive issue in Ireland, with laws effectively  banning it since 1861.  More than a century later, The Eighth Amendment establishing an equal right to life for mothers and foetuses was enacted, partly in reaction to pro-choice movements around the world, including the legalisation of abortion in the U.S. after the landmark Roe vs Wade Supreme Court ruling.

Before the May referendum, women who illegally terminated a pregnancy in Ireland faced up to 14 years' prison.

But in 1992, after a horrific case involving a 14-year-old rape victim who then became suicidal,  a new constitutional amendment was passed allowing women to travel overseas to obtain abortions.

It's estimated on average, nine women travel to Great Britain from Ireland every day to end a pregnancy, while four women purchase illegal medication online to do so.

The new laws will largely bring an end to those practices.

But Ireland is not the only country with a history of restrictive abortion laws  -- here's a look at some of the other places on Earth where a woman's right to choose is next to non-existent.

El Salvador
Salvadorean women rally demanding the decriminalization of abortion in front of the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador on September 28, 2016. (Photo: Getty Images)

The small, predominately Catholic country of El Salvador has been widely labelled as the most draconian when it comes to abortion laws.

Abortion is completely banned, in all circumstances, regardless of whether the pregnancy poses a risk to the health of the mother, or if the case involves rape, incest, or foetal abnormality.

Prison terms for women who seek abortions range from two to eight years, while medical professionals who assist them can be jailed for up to 12 years.

If a woman suffers a miscarriage and is suspected to have intentionally caused it, she can be prosecuted for aggravated murder, and face up to 40 years behind bars.

One such case gripped the country last year,  when a 19-year-old rape survivor was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide after suffering pregnancy-related complications.

In March, 34-year-old Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín had her sentence commuted and was released from prison after serving 15 years following a stillbirth.

Maira Figueroa (R), is embraced by a woman shortly after being released from the Women's Rehabilitation center in Ilopango, El Salvador on March 13, 2018, where she was serving a sentence since 2003, handed down under draconian anti-abortion laws for suffering a miscarriage. (Photo: Getty Images)

Both cases sparked outcry from international human rights groups.  Amnesty International reports 23 women remain behind bars on abortion-related convictions, while more than 150 have faced prosecution since 1998, according to the Foreign Policy Group.

Politicians have been under pressure to decriminlise abortions, with new laws proposed to reform the criminal code, but in April the country's legislature adjourned without a vote.


Nicaraguan activists hold a banner reading "Right to decide" as they take part in a protest in favour of the legalization of abortion, outside the Nicaraguan National Assembly in Managua, on October 26, 2011. (Photo: Getty Images)

Since 2006, El Salvador's near-neighbour Nicaragua also banned abortion in all circumstances, including risk to the mother's health, incest, rape and foetal abnormality.

The penalties are still harsh, but less so -- women who terminate pregnancies can be jailed for up to two years under the country's criminal code, and medical professionals who provide abortions can be jailed for up to six years and have their medical qualifications stripped for 10 years.

As is true with many developing countries, women and girls in Nicaragua suffer a high rate of sexual violence, with 22.5 percent reporting physical or sexual abuse committed by a current or former partner, and 10 percent reporting a rape or non-penetrative sexual abuse within their lifetime, according to the country's 2014 health statistics.

Human rights groups say women are then doubly victimised by being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, face stigmatisation and have very few places to turn to in crisis.

Rights groups report many women, particularly from poorer backgrounds, resort to dangerous methods to terminate pregnancies in Nicaragua.

In 2014, at least 10 percent of all maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean were due to unsafe abortion practices, The Guttmacher Institute reports, with only one in four abortions performed safely.

Vatican City
A general view shows faithful during the mass of Easter celebrated by Pope Francis on April 1, 2018 at St Peter's square in Vatican. (Photo: Getty Images)

As the centre of global Catholicism, The Vatican unsurprisingly maintains a total ban on abortion, but the law is is more symbolic than a matter of practice.

Even so, the tiny country, home to some 450 citizens (mainly celibate clergy and only 32 women including a nun, based on 2011 statistics), outlaws abortion without exception.

It is unclear if or how the Vatican's strict abortion laws would be enforced, as the .44 square kilometre nation has no prisons (only cells within its police headquarters), only a small judicial system (comprised of a three-judge tribunal that handles more serious crimes),  and refers nearly all criminal matters to Italy, which allows abortions up to 12 weeks.

A view of the capital Valletta, Malta on March 22, 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)

After Ireland's referendum, the small conservative Catholic island of Malta becomes the only remaining nation in the EU with a total ban on abortion.

This includes cases of rape, incest, foetal abnormality and health risk to the mother. Penalties to women include jail time of up to three years, while medical professionals who conduct abortions can be jailed for up to four years and be stripped of their medical qualifications for life.

However in practice, it's been reported that when doctors have been forced to choose between saving the life of a woman or saving her unborn child, it is seen as a greater moral responsibility to save the mother.

Last year, political Green party Alternattiva Demokratika leader Carmel Cacopardo argued abortion in Malta is already a reality, with between 300-400 Maltese women going abroad to terminate pregnancies each year.  He told legislators remaining quiet on the issue is not in the country's best interest.

The Irish vote has kicked off some debate in Malta about whether to open up a national conversation on abortion, but historically politicians haven't jumped to do so.

Dominican Republic
People take part in a march demanding Dominican President Danilo Medina to review the penal code and not approve the criminalization of abortion, in Santo Domingo on December 18, 2016. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Dominican Republic also bans abortion in all circumstances, even if a mother's life is at risk, or in cases of incest, rape and foetal abnormality.

Last year, President Danilo Medina Sanchez' attempt to soften the rules was voted down by the legislature, and the total ban was upheld.

Women face up to three years' jail for terminating pregnancies, and medical professionals face up to 10 years.

In a horrific case in 2012, a teenage leukemia patient was denied chemotherapy, because it was discovered she was 13-weeks' pregnant.  Doctors hesitated because the treatment would undoubtedly harm the foetus.

After waiting 20 days in hospital, the 16-year-old was finally treated, but the leukemia had aggressively advanced and she died within a week.

Laws to decriminalise abortion were passed in 2014, but then found unconstitutional, and the ban was reinstated.