“Cruel, inhuman and degrading.” Those were the words used by a UN panel last week to refer to Ireland’s abortion laws, which it says subject women to suffering and discrimination. Described as groundbreaking, the ruling called on Ireland to change its laws to ensure women there have access to safe abortion services.
Up until recently, abortions were banned under all circumstances in the country. A change to the law in 2013 – pushed through after the outrage that followed the death of Savita Halappanavar, whose life could have been saved by a termination – legalized abortions when a woman’s life is in danger.
While women’s rights campaigners celebrated that ruling, Ireland’s abortion laws are still among the strictest in the world. If a victim of rape or incest were to seek out an abortion, for example, she could face up to 14 years in prison.
Ireland might be an anomaly among European countries – only Malta and Vatican City have even stricter laws – but it’s certainly not the only place in the world where women can only access abortions under the most limited of circumstances.
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Along with Malta and Vatican City, four countries prohibit abortion under all circumstances: Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua, all in Latin America. Some of these countries have been badly hit by the Zika virus, which has been linked to neonatal malformations. While the UN has called on them to relax their abortion laws, the likes of El Salvador have instead urged women to delay having babies by several years.
In the Middle East, all countries allow abortion if the mother’s life is in danger, but only four of 18 countries allow it in cases of rape or incest.
Even in places where abortion is legal, obstacles often stop women from accessing the service. Take the example of the US, where women have a constitutionally protected right to abortion. In states such as Texas or Louisiana, local authorities have attempted to prevent women from exercising these rights by imposing such severe restrictions on clinics that most are forced to close.
It’s not a new development: back in 2011, 38% of American women lived in a county with no abortion clinic. Texas – a state with the land mass of France and a population larger than Australia’s – has just 10 abortion clinics, forcing women to drive hundreds of miles to access a safe abortion.
The latest UN ruling on the situation in Ireland, while carrying no legal weight, does place pressure on those countries to revisit their strict laws surrounding abortion.