Chile Just Lifted Its Total Abortion Ban, But These 5 Countries Are Still Terrible For Abortion Rights

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This week, reproductive justice advocates worldwide heralded news that Chile just lifted its total abortion ban. In a 6-4 decision in Chile's Supreme Court, it was decided that abortion would be legal in cases in which the fetus wasn't viable, the mother's life was at risk, or the pregnancy was the result of rape. It's a victory that's hard-won for Chilean pro-choice activists, after the law spent two years being debated in the country's Congress. Though Chile once had very permissive abortion laws, the Pinochet regime gradually tightened them until abortions were banned outright, so not only is this a huge victory for Chilean women's reproductive rights, but it's also a massive step towards undoing the legacy of the dictatorship in Chile.

Unfortunately, Chile was not alone in its unnecessarily restrictive abortion laws. The number of countries in the world where abortion is severely restricted or banned outright remains distressingly high. According to the Center for Reproductive Justice, in 2015 66 countries, 25.5 percent of the world's population, either banned abortion totally or only allowed it in very specific cases (rape or incest, for instance). And just because abortion is legalized doesn't necessarily mean it's easy, safe, or provided by local authorities without issues. The new Chilean laws, for instance, allow for doctors and practitioners to refuse to perform an abortion procedure, as they can in the United States. These five countries are at the very bottom of the list for abortion rights and access in the entire world, and sadly, there's not much that can be done about it.

El Salvador

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El Salvador's anti-abortion laws are among the world's strictest. Abortions are prohibited under any circumstance, from rape to incest to life-threatening pregnancy — and women who seek or obtain one anyway, plus anybody who helps, are eligible for jail sentences. Women who have obtained an abortion are currently liable to be imprisoned for up to 100 days, though a draft bill proposed last year suggested that the penalty be raised to a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of 50, the equivalent of a murder sentence with "aggravated cruelty." As of 2017, there are 17 women in prison in El Salvador for abortion, all of whom have had their sentences increased, and are serving up to 40 years.

A bill introduced by the left-wing party in 2016 suggested that abortion should become legal when the person seeking one is a minor who has been raped or is a victim of human trafficking, when the fetus is unviable, or to protect both the woman's life and her health (an important distinction). Many people don't think that bill has a chance, but another was suggested this month by a breakaway right-wing politician that would restrict legal abortion to life-saving medical emergency and pregnancies that had resulted from the rape of a minor. Watch this space.

Northern Ireland & The Republic Of Ireland

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Both parts of the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland (which is still part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland (which isn't), have severe restrictions on abortion. It's only technically allowed if a mother's life is threatened, but in practice that has resulted in tragedy: Savita Halappanavar died in Galway Hospital in November 2012 after a miscarriag; her doctors refused to perform an abortion as there was a fetal heartbeat present. Her death resulted in a minor law change, in that abortions thereafter became legal to save a woman's life.

Ireland's proximity to the UK, where abortions are provided free of charge by the National Health Service, has led to a long history of Irish women coming to the mainland to obtain one legally. A long-standing political row surrounded the fact that they had to pay a fee of around £900 ($US1150) for the service, but in January the British Pregnancy Advisory Service announced that the fees had been eliminated and Irish women would receive the service for free.

United Arab Emirates

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Section 340 of the UAE Penal Code stipulates that "any person inducing a voluntary pregnancy termination in a pregnant woman by providing her with medicaments or by using instruments for this purpose is liable to up to five years' imprisonment." Abortions themselves are illegal except in cases where they are required to save the woman's life or if the fetus has life-threatening deformities. Even in those cases, the husband or guardian of the woman needs to give their permission, and a panel of doctors is required to agree that it's the only procedure left. As in many countries with severe abortion restrictions, women found to be miscarrying may be charged with attempting an abortion and can be put in prison for six months.

The results of this regime include the widespread problems of improperly conducted illegal abortions. Women with no other options must either leave the country to obtain abortions (India is a particularly popular destination), or find people willing to do it undercover in the UAE. They have no legal or medical options if the operation goes awry. There are currently calls for laws to change to allow abortion after 120 days in cases of fetal deformity, but they look unlikely to change anything soon.

Malta

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To many human rights watchers around the world, Malta is a paradox. It's rapidly become one of the world's newest gay-friendly destinations. It emphasizes LGBTQ rights in its constitution, was the first European country to ban conversion therapy, and legalized gay marriage in July 2017 — but it continues to ban abortion under any circumstances. In 2013, it became the last country in the entire EU to ban it under all circumstances including life-threatening pregnancy, and harsh penalties remain on its books. To have an abortion is to face up to 3 years' jail time, and those who perform them risk 4 years in prison and the removal of their medical license.

98 percent of the country is Catholic, which is seen as part of the reason behind the abortion law's strictness, but its relaxation of Catholic mores in other circumstances makes the abortion restrictions a holdout. Whether the tides will turn for this aspect of the law remains unclear.

Paraguay

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In 2015, Paraguay made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A 10-year-old who'd been raped by her stepfather was refused permission to have an abortion. The mother of “Mainumby," as the girl was named in the press, pleaded with international organizations and the Paraguayan government, but to no avail. The only permissible abortions in Paraguay are performed when the mother's life is at risk, and Mainumby's situation was not deemed to fit that mold. She gave birth late in 2015.

Amnesty International pointed out that Mainumby's case is hardly unique, and that she was further disadvantaged by her poverty. Doctors in Paraguay are willing to be bribed to perform procedures, and wealthy families can take daughters to other countries to have abortions. 95 percent of the country, according to research by the Centre of Reproductive Rights in 2016, disapproves of abortion, so, tragically, it seems that cases like Mainumby's will simply keep occurring until there's a fundamental shift in the fabric of Paraguay's beliefs.