In Depth

Countries where abortion is legal - and where it’s illegal

El Salvador rape victim is acquitted of murder over baby’s stillbirth

A rape victim in El Salvador who was charged with murder after giving birth to a stillborn baby has been acquitted in a retrial.

Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez, 21, had served 33 months of a 30-year prison sentence after being found guilty of inducing an abortion.

Her murder conviction was overturned in February owing to a lack of evidence and a new trial was ordered, with prosecutors seeking a harsher 40-year jail sentence, reports The Guardian.

In April 2016, Hernandez was discovered on the floor of her bathroom covered in blood, reports CNN. She was taken to a hospital in El Carmen and examined by doctors, who realised she had given birth. When local officials visited her home five hours later, they found the newborn baby dead in a septic tank.

Hernandez always maintained she did not cause her baby’s death, saying she didn’t know she was pregnant and lost consciousness during the birth.

“Thank God, justice has been done,” she said outside the court in San Salvador yesterday. “My future is to continue studying and to move forward with my goals.”

El Salvador has some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world. Abortion is illegal in any circumstances, and women found guilty of having an abortion face between two and eight years in prison.

But many women - including Hernandez - are charged with the more severe crime of aggravated homicide, which carries a minimum sentence of 30 years, reports the BBC.

Speaking after Hernandez’s acquittal, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, called on El Salvador to cease “criminalising women once and for all by immediately revoking the nation’s draconian anti-abortion laws”, says the Guardian.

A 2017 report by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health laws, found that 42% of women of reproductive age live in countries where abortion is either banned or allowed only in specific circumstances.

The most common legal grounds for abortion worldwide are to protect the life of the mother, followed by serious risk to her physical or mental health.

Around half of the countries in the world allow abortion in cases where the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, and a similar proportion recognise serious foetal abnormality.

However, in a few countries, abortion remains the ultimate taboo.

Which countries have the strictest abortion laws?

All but a handful of countries allow an abortion to be performed when the life of the mother is at risk. The exceptions are Malta, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Dominican Republic.

Strongly Catholic Malta is the only European country to have a total ban on abortion. However, in practice, doctors will give life-saving treatment to a mother even if an embryo or foetus is harmed or aborted as a result. That’s despite the Maltese Criminal Code making doctors liable for up to four years in prison if they cause a miscarriage.

A survey carried out last year by Malta Today suggests that liberalisation in the country is a long way off. Overall, 95.2% of those surveyed were opposed to abortion by request - known as elective abortion - even if it were restricted to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Less than half said that abortion should be allowed to save the life of the mother.

Unsurprisingly, abortion is also totally banned in Vatican City - however, given that the Holy See’s 800-strong population is overwhelmingly made up of Catholic clerics, this prohibition is largely theoretical. 

Where is elective abortion legal?

At the other end of the scale, 63 countries and territories permit women to terminate their pregnancies at their request, although usually with some conditions - most commonly, a time limit on when the procedure can be performed.

Canada is the only Western nation where a woman can seek an elective abortion at any time in her pregnancy, although in practice only a handful of terminations occur during the third trimester, HuffPost reports.

What about the UK?

In all parts of the UK except Northern Ireland women can freely obtain an abortion up to 24 weeks into their pregnancy. Terminations can be performed after this limit in exceptional circumstances, such as to save the life of the mother or because of a severe foetal abnormality. 

A bill bringing Northern Irish abortion law into line with the rest of the UK passed its final stage in the House of Commons on 22 July. Abortion will now become legal in Northern Ireland on 21 October this year unless the currently-dissolved devolved government at Stormont is able to re-form and veto the measures, reports Amnesty International.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland director of Amnesty International, said: “This is a historic day for human rights.

“Nowhere on these islands have people had to fight longer and harder for their human rights than in Northern Ireland.”

Office for National Statistics and Department of Health and Social Care figures show that in 2017, 192,900 abortions were performed in England and Wales, compared to 679,106 live births.

Figures like these are often used to claim that more than 20% of all pregnancies are terminated. However, The Journal points out that this statistic is misleading as it does not take into account the thousands of pregnancies which end in miscarriage every year.

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