International Day of Decriminalization of Abortion: A Look at Nearly Two Decades of Abortion Law Reform

In 2008, Manuela, a 33-year-old mother of two from El Salvador, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison after suffering severe complications giving birth. From the moment that she arrived at the hospital seeking emergency health care, slipping in and out of consciousness and hemorrhaging, doctors treated her as if she had attempted an abortion and immediately called the police. She was shackled to her hospital bed and accused of murder. 

Manuela was sentenced to 30 years in prison without ever having a chance to meet with her lawyer, without an opportunity to speak in her own defense, and without the right to appeal the decision. After several months in prison, she was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma—a disease that likely lead to the severe obstetric emergency she suffered. In 2010, she died in prison, leaving behind her two young children.

El Salvador is one of a dwindling minority of countries that ban abortion under any circumstance. Such laws create environments of judgment and stigma resulting in women who seek legal medical treatment for abortion-related complications being imprisoned, harassed and abused by healthcare providers, or receiving substandard care.

While women who live in countries with liberal abortion laws are more likely to have access to safe abortion services, women in countries with restrictive abortion laws may be forced to endanger their lives or health to terminate their pregnancies. Study upon study has repeatedly demonstrated that restrictive abortion laws do not reduce abortion rates. In countries with restrictive abortion laws, abortion rates are high, most abortions are unsafe and women's health and lives are frequently jeopardized. Every year, 49,000 women die as a result of unsafe abortions—this means that one woman dies every eleven minutes from an unsafe abortion.

Today, for the International Day of Decriminalization of Abortion, we call on governments across the globe to take measures to protect women's fundamental human rights and abolish laws criminalizing abortion.

In the past 18 years, since 179 governments worldwide came together to affirm their commitment to preventing unsafe abortion, dozens of countries have liberalized their abortion laws, while only a handful have tightened legal restrictions.

The trend toward abortion law reform is a testament to increasing global recognition that decriminalizing abortion and ensuring women's access to safe, legal abortion services goes beyond just permitting women to control their reproductive autonomy: it is absolutely critical in order to preserve women's health and save their lives worldwide.

International Campaign for Women's Right to Safe Abortion