Going back in time on abortion law

Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St Paul, Minnesota, U.S. Photo by Lorie Shaull on Wikimedia.

Hi, this is Ivan — I work as a developer here at Datawrapper. This week we’ll take a look at how abortion laws around the world have changed over the last several decades.

A few weeks ago, a draft ruling which has implications for abortion laws was leaked from the U.S. Supreme Court. The draft suggests that the court may be planning to overturn a ruling from 1973 (known as Roe v. Wade) that established a constitutional right to abortion. This would lead to a landmark shift in access to abortion services in the country, with some states likely to outlaw abortion altogether. A lot of data visualization focusing on the situation in the U.S. was recently published; you can see some great examples in our recent Data Vis Dispatch.

Reading the news made me wonder: how have abortion laws changed in recent years across the world? Have abortion laws generally become more liberalized or more restricted?

Looking at the map, it’s possible to see a general pattern: there are more countries that liberalized abortion laws than those that restricted them. If the U.S. moved in the direction as suggested by the leaked Supreme Court draft, it would be joining a minority of states around the world in curbing abortion rights.

What the map shows and what it doesn’t show

The map above specifically shows changes to abortion laws and not their current state. So even if laws have been made somewhat more permissive, overall they may still be quite restrictive in a given country. For instance, while Chile moved away from having one of the most restrictive abortion policies in the world in 2017, it still only allows abortion in limited circumstances of either being a danger to a woman’s life, or in cases of rape or fetal impairment.

There are already many great maps out there which show the current state of abortion laws (for example here). Most of them use categories as defined by Center for Reproductive Rights:

  1. Prohibited Altogether — least permissive
  2. To Save the Woman’s Life
  3. To Preserve Health
  4. Socioeconomic Grounds
  5. On Request (Gestational Limits Vary) — most permissive

These categories are the source of data for my map.

Getting and preparing the data

The Center for Reproductive Rights documents progress on abortion laws, which includes changes to categories. This was my primary source of data. For every country that moved into a new category, I calculated the number of categories it moved. For example, Guyana started in category 2 in 1994 and moved to category 5 in 1995. On my map that constitutes an ”increase” of +3.

There are some countries which stayed in the same category but did see some permissive changes within that category. An example is Indonesia, which made abortion in cases of rape or fetal impairment legal in 2009 but overall still stayed in category 2. For those cases, I assigned a change value of +0.5.

I also added some of the newest changes that are not listed in above document. For example in Colombia abortion has become available on demand in 2022 which moved the country into category 5.

There is some data that I did not find at the Center for Reproductive Rights: changes in countries that made their abortion laws more restrictive in recent years. To obtain this data I used sources such as Wikipedia and attempted to place the changes into the same categories as those used by Center for Reproductive Rights.

The categories defined by the Center for Reproductive Rights are not numerical but rather categorical, so theoretically it’s not possible to compare them on a linear scale. Nevertheless, I thought that it’s a neat way to show the pattern of whether countries around the world have generally liberalized their abortion laws and how much they liberalized them.

Limitations and data troubles

While working on this weekly chart, I learned that working with abortion law data is difficult. The Center for Reproductive Rights did an excellent job to categorize laws across different countries, but the laws nevertheless remain difficult to compare. A lot of countries have laws that are not clearly defined or a lack of abortion services that makes it difficult to actually access abortion, even when the laws are permissive. There are also often special provisions and exceptions to laws within a certain category, which again makes it difficult to compare countries. An example of a country difficult to categorize is Germany, where abortion is currently forbidden by law but is without punishment under the condition of mandatory counselling. However since a woman does not need a specific reason to request an abortion, Germany is in category 5 on the Center for Reproductive Rights scale.

Another issue is that there are often regional differences within a single country. For example, in the UK, Northern Ireland is in category 5 while the rest of the country is in category 4.

Finally, it's especially difficult to find reliable data on countries with strict abortion laws. I discovered a UN document which mentions some countries restricting abortion, such as Iraq, but I couldn't find any additional information about that, so I decided not to include it on my map.

This is it from me this week! If you have some good additional data sources on abortion laws around the world, or if you have any other questions or comments, let me know over at ivan@datawrapper.de or on Twitter. We'll see you next week!