Abortion is one of the trickiest ethical issues out there. On the one hand, you have to ensure you respect the rights of the mother. On the other, you also have to respect the rights of her unborn child. Each country strives to strike a fair balance, with some leaning more towards the mother’s rights, and some leaning more toward the child’s. While nowhere likely gets it exactly right, most countries at least strive to create a situation everyone can live with.
Yet there are exceptions. In some places, abortion is so liberalized that anyone can get one for pretty much any reason. In others, it’s so restricted as to be next-to impossible to get. The following countries all come with different histories, are found on different continents, and have wildly different cultures. What they all have in common is their commitment to a near-total ban on abortions. Are they pro-life utopias? Or anti-feminist dystopias? We’ll leave it for you to decide.
10. Northern Ireland (UK)
Of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and maybe Cornwall if you’re feeling generous), Northern Ireland is perhaps the most like a separate nation. Laws that apply in one form elsewhere in the UK, such as libel laws, are applied differently there. The system of government, a relic from the dark days of the Troubles, is different. And the country’s religious background is ferociously Catholic.
That last one may explain the differences in abortion laws. While England, Wales and Scotland have relatively liberal abortion laws, Northern Ireland has some of the strictest in Europe.
Northern Irish mothers are only allowed a termination if their own life is in danger. Pregnancies as the result of rape, incest, or that might leave the mother or child handicapped, have to be carried to term. For most of Northern Ireland’s existence, this law was actually more liberal than in the Republic of Ireland. Following a liberalization south of the border in 2013, though, the two countries are about on an even keel.
Nonetheless, in practice, Northern Irish women are less restricted than in many other countries. As citizens of the UK, they are free to travel to the mainland UK and get a legal termination there. The country’s National Health Service will even do the procedure for free.
Currently, Poland’s abortion laws are some of the most pro-life on the continent. Terminations can only be performed if the mother’s life is in danger, in the case of rape, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. Since that’s more exceptions than Northern Ireland allows, you might be wondering why we ranked Poland lower on the list. There’s a good reason for that. While Northern Ireland shows no sign of revising its laws either way, Poland’s government is currently pushing for a near-total ban on abortion.
The move would bring Poland’s laws in line with those in Northern Ireland, but with the added restriction that citizens can’t legally travel to another part of the country for a termination. The reasons for the new law are rooted in Poland’s deep-seated Catholicism. The country is one of the most-religious in the world, and the government envisions a future where even babies that can’t survive birth are delivered, baptized, and given proper burials.
The law faces stiff opposition from some sectors of society. An earlier draft had to be abandoned after mass protests and strikes in 60 cities threatened to bring the country to its knees.
Mexico is a crazy-hard country to rank on here. Its 31 states have wildly differing laws on abortion, running the gamut from relatively-liberal to extremely strict. While the capital allows abortions up to 12 weeks with no restrictions, others will not allow a termination even if the mother’s life is in danger.
In fact, only 13 states will prioritize the mother’s life above that of the fetus. At least 16 have reaffirmed their constitutions to define life beginning at the moment of conception. Tests are carried out on miscarriages to make sure the baby wasn’t born alive. If authorities determine the baby died after exiting the womb it is counted as an abortion and the mother can be jailed.
On the other hand, Mexico City has one of the most-liberal regimes in Latin America. Only Uruguay and Cuba have laws even approaching their ’12 weeks, no questions asked’ rule.
7. North Korea
Since the 1950s, abortion has been completely legal in North Korea. The DPRK’s legal code even makes a big hash about how women’s rights are protected in their Socialist paradise. So why have we included them on this list? Simple. Since coming to power, Kim Jong-Un has decided to become anti-abortion. And nobody in North Korea argues with Kim.
As of 2015, Kim’s edict has essentially banned abortion in North Korea, under any circumstances. This coincided with a law banning most forms of contraception, leading many North Korea observers to conclude that the ban was less about Kim’s personal ethics, and more about halting the extreme birthrate decline seen in the impoverished kingdom.
Like many aspects of North Korea, it’s impossible to tell how this law is actually playing out inside the country. It may be that the party elite in Pyongyang – traditionally above the law in many areas – still have access to abortions, or it may be that they’re policed as heavily as the rest of Kim’s subjects.
Chile is the first nation on our list that we can say for absolute certain bans abortion under any circumstance. Rape, incest, danger to the life of the mother, a guarantee the fetus won’t survive birth… none of these makes a difference to how the law is applied. Only five other countries on Earth have abortion laws this restrictive.
What makes Chile slightly different is the historical context from which the ban was forged. Abortion to save the mother’s life was legalized in 1931, and for a short while was a totem of a liberal, outward-facing Chile. Then the Pinochet dictatorship arrived and completely banned abortion. The law’s association with the torture and executions of the Pinochet-era has led a lot of people in the country to regard it with a deep unease, including otherwise natural conservatives.
As a result, Chile is currently on the brink of passing an amendment that will scrap the current law and legalize abortion in the case of rape, incest, or if the mother’s life is at risk.
5. El Salvador
At time of writing, El Salvador’s abortion laws are even more pro-life than Chile’s. Whereas Chile simply criminalizes abortions, El Salvador also criminalizes those indirectly involved in the termination. Much as accomplices to murder can be arrested in other countries, those who “provoke or allow” abortions in El Salvador can get up to 8 years in jail. Congress are currently debating (as of October 2016) a bill to increase the sentence to 50 years.
So why isn’t El Salvador higher on our list? The simple answer is: because the government’s divided. While the opposition are pushing for a 50-year sentence for abortions, the ruling party are tabling a motion that would liberalize abortions for rape, incest, and to save the mother’s life. Currently, no-one knows which way it will go. In a few months’ time, El Salvador may have moved up our list, or dropped off it altogether.
When Ireland tweaked its laws in 2013, Malta became the last EU nation to outlaw abortion even to save the mother’s life. The tiny nation has historically been a bastion of Catholicism ever since the early days of the church. It was here that theological shock troops the Sovereign Military Order of Malta based itself for over 250 years before being chased out by the French in 1798. Divorce was illegal until 2011. Even now, in 2016, you can be jailed for 6 months for insulting Catholicism.
With all that in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that Malta has pretty conservative laws on abortion. However, the reality on the ground is actually a little different from the theory. Doctors in Malta observe the principle of ‘double effect’. This means that, in case of a life-threatening pregnancy, allowing both the mother and fetus to die is the greater moral crime. Therefore, it is permissible to commit the lesser-moral crime of terminating the fetus to save the mother’s life. Although this is a bit of a get-around, no doctor in modern times has ever been prosecuted for it. For all practical intents, then, Maltese abortion law is little different from that in Northern Ireland or Poland.
Until 2006, Nicaragua’s abortion laws were roughly in line with much of Latin America. Terminations were only allowed in the case of rape, malformation of the fetus, or a significant risk to the mother’s health or life. Nicaragua was slightly-stricter, in that 3 separate doctors had to sign off on the procedure, but abortion was still legally possible.
Then, on November 2 that year, everything changed. Following a public campaign by the respected Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, locally famous for standing up to both the US-backed Samoza dictatorship and the Communist-backed Ortega one, Managua outlawed all abortions.
Interestingly, some anti-abortion campaigners later complained that the government went too far. The pro-life Rev. Rolando Álvarez of the Managua archdiocese claimed later in the year that exceptions should still be made to save the mother’s life. At time of writing, though, those exceptions are nowhere to be seen. Nicaragua remains one of the most-restrictive societies for abortion on Earth.
2. Dominican Republic
Many countries on this list have either recently relaxed abortion laws, have active loopholes, or only recently committed to a total ban. The Dominican Republic is different. Since 1884, it has been illegal to even inquire about an abortion on this island of 10.4m people. The penalties abortion carries are not as strict as in some states (such as El Salvador), but still fairly heavy. Mothers can be jailed for 3 years, while medical staff can be jailed for 10. Since 2012, it has even been illegal to seek medical help following a botched abortion procedure.
Interestingly, the Dominican Republic has flirted with the idea of liberalization at least once in its history. In 2014, President Danilo Medina ended a 10-year consultation process into abortion by announcing that it would be decriminalized in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother’s life, or if the fetus was unable to survive outside the womb. The amendments never became law. In 2015, the Constitutional Court overturned them, saying they would violate the country’s penal code.
1. Vatican City/Holy See
Be honest: Did you really expect to find any other nation at the top of this list?
The last remnants of the once-powerful Papal States of central Italy, the 0.44 square kilometer Vatican City in the center of Rome is the beating heart of Catholicism. This is where the Pope kicks back when he’s not zipping around the world. This is where the whole of Catholic theology is spun from. And you’re asking if they do abortions. C’mon, dude.
To be honest, abortion isn’t really much of an issue in Vatican City. Most of the micro-nation’s population of 451 are celibate clergy, with a few diplomats thrown in, and, unusually, one ex-Pope (Benedict XVI, who stepped aside from his ‘office for life’ in 2013 to make way for the current pontiff). Only 30 citizens are female, and all live surrounded on all sides by the state of Italy, which allows abortions up to 12 weeks. In other words, it’s easier to see Vatican City’s abortion laws as more of a gesture than something that actually affects actual people.
Nonetheless, the city-state maintains the strictest abortion laws on Earth. Abortion is not allowed in any circumstances, although punishments are much-less clear. Vatican City does not have its own prison, and almost always hands criminals over to the state of Italy for trial and punishment. How they would feel, sentencing someone who had broken no Italian laws, is something we’ve never had to find out.