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Where is the worst place for abortions?

On the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, GlobalPost looks at abortion rights around the world.

presenting a strong risk to the mother's mental health. Abortion is also legal up to 12 weeks after conception if the doctor deems that there is a strong chance that the child would suffer from “such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped,” according to the law.

Those same conditions apply up to 20 weeks, if two doctors agree that they apply to the case.

Partly due to India's concerns over its massive population, in practice, those rules are flouted so frequently that one might say abortion is effectively allowed in India up to 12 weeks after conception without any restrictions. The leading reason for termination is all-too likely female feticide, which UNICEF estimates is a $250 million industry for (law-flouting) ultrasound labs and abortion doctors.

Jason Overdorf in New Delhi

In the poorer regions of North Korea, a growing number of women are turning to illegal and risky back-alley abortions, or under-the-radar operations performed after bribing the country's rickety hospitals. Contraceptives are difficult to find in the hermit state. Meanwhile, sex outside of marriage is not uncommon. Ever since the economy was crippled in the 1990s, prostitution has been on the rise, too, creating a greater need for abortion services.

For the most part, North Korea has banned abortion, unless the government approves the procedure by special request. What does that mean, exactly? Well, the government keeps it vague, but the reality is dark. Defectors have reported witnessing forced abortions in the country's prison camps. They're often carried out in cases where the mother is Korean and the father is Chinese — a stigma for a regime that takes pride in pure blood.

In South Korea, the situation is different. Pragmatic concerns over low birth rates, combined with a powerful Protestant lobby, mean that abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, incest, and severe genetic disorders. Last April, the South Korean Constitutional Court even upheld a 60-year-old abortion ban. Government data estimated that more than 340,000 abortions were conducted in 2005, the most recent year data are available — 95 percent of them illegally.

Abortions here are incredibly common, with countless doctors willing to perform them in clean and safe clinics for jacked-up fees given the risks. Police, too, seem to tolerate the underground market, in the same way prostitution is outlawed but rampant in Seoul. One middle-aged South Korean mother of two tells me she and three of her friends aborted their fetuses and don't feel any taboo talking openly about it.

Geoffrey Cain in Seoul

Southeast Asia remains a hostile place for women seeking abortions. Only communist Vietnam and secular Singapore allow women to terminate pregnancies at will. Throughout the rest of region — in which varied societies take moral cues from Buddhism, Catholicism or Islam — abortion is largely prohibited. In the Muslim-majority nations Malaysia and Indonesia, the government even forces women to carry out pregnancies caused by rape.

But no Southeast Asian nation can match the Philippines when it comes to fervid debates over women's reproductive rights. Obeying the Vatican, bishops and priests in the heavily Catholic nation have sought to equate condoms and birth control pills with abortion. In recent weeks, their movement was derailed by a hard-won new law, more than 10 years in the making, that allows government-sponsored contraception. Abortion is still highly forbidden in the Philippines; suggesting a change to this standard still amounts to political suicide.

But just because abortions are illegal doesn't mean Southeast Asian women aren't having them. In September, a GlobalPost investigation uncovered herbal abortion cocktails sold for $3.60 outside one of Manila's most revered churches. As many as 2 million abortions per year may occur in populous Indonesia, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which monitors reproductive health. Many of these underground operations end in death, according to the institute, which calls Indonesia's abortions a "common occurrence" that are "often unsafe."

Patrick Winn in Bangkok


The European Union has no common abortion policy but all of its 27 member nations, except Malta, allow abortions in some circumstances. Restrictions placed on the procedure vary from country to country.

Britain's abortion laws are relatively liberal with women able to end pregnancies of up to 24 weeks on medical, psychological or social grounds.

Most other countries, including France and Germany, permit abortion on request, or when the woman is "in distress," up to 12 weeks into the pregnancy. For abortions beyond 12 weeks, special approval must be sought. In some EU countries, government health-care systems cover some or all of the costs.

Ireland has some of the strictest abortion legislation. The procedure is legal only in cases where the woman's life is clearly endangered. Calls for changes in the law have intensified since the death in October of Savita Halappanavar, 31, after medical staff refused to carry out an abortion despite the risk to her life.

Poland limits abortions to rape victims and cases where there is a serious health risk.

Spain's conservative government has pushed to tighten Spanish abortion laws after the previous Socialist administration legalized it in 2010.

The World Health Organization says abortion statistics are generally low in Western Europe, but remain high in the East, even though numbers have fallen since Soviet times when abortion was used as a form of birth control. In 2003, there were more abortions than live births.

A WHO review in 2007 showed that in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, each woman will on average have close to three abortions in her lifetime.

Recently concerns have been raised that abortion is being used selectively on female fetuses in some parts of Europe — notably Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Barry Neild in London; Paul Ames in Brussels