Abortion Worldwide: Seventeen Years of Reform

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In 1994, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (PoA) called upon governments to strengthen their commitment to women’s health by addressing unsafe abortion and supporting a woman’s right to make decisions about her reproductive capacity and her body.2 While the PoA’s directives on abortion are narrow, advocates worldwide have used them to address unsafe abortion and promote abortion access.
One year after the PoA, the Beijing Platform for Action reaffirmed paragraph 8.25 of the PoA and further called upon governments to “review laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions”.3 At the PoA’s five-year review, governments recognized the need for greater safety and availability of abortion services, asserting that “in circumstances where abortion is not against the law, health systems should train and equip health-service providers and should take other measures to ensure that such abortion is safe and accessible. Additional measures should be taken to safeguard women’s health.”4
The PoA and subsequent international consensus documents have affirmed that removing legal barriers to abortion saves women’s lives, promotes their health, and empowers women to make decisions crucial to their well-being. The PoA also reflects a global trend toward abortion law liberalization—a trend that first gained momentum in the late 1960s and continues to this day. Currently, 73 countries, representing more than 60% of the world’s population, permit abortion without restriction as to reason or on broad grounds.
Seventeen years after the PoA, advocates for abortion law reform can continue to point to the global commitment, declared in 1994, to stopping unsafe abortion. They can also highlight the examples of 26 countries that have removed legal restrictions on abortion in the last 17 years.

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