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US out of step with much of the world on abortion

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Abortion remains a fiercely divisive issue in the United States nearly 50 years after the Supreme Court guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion./AFP
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Dec 03, 2021 - 11:55 AM

WASHINGTON — While many countries around the world have eased restrictions on abortion, the United States is going in the other direction.

The conservative-dominated Supreme Court appears all but certain to uphold a 2018 Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

China and North Korea 

In the absence of any federal laws, it is the US Supreme Court that has, since 1973, guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion until “viability,” when the fetus can survive outside the womb, typically between 22 and 24 weeks of pregnancy.

But the nation’s highest court appears poised, following oral arguments on Wednesday, to roll back abortion rights and uphold Mississippi’s 15-week ban.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, expressed concern that the United States shared its viability standard with the People’s Republic of China and North Korea while the rest of the world is more restrictive.

Former vice president Mike Pence, speaking a day earlier, made the same comparison and said he hoped the court “can move America away from the radical fringe squarely back into the mainstream of Western thought.”

The United States does, in fact, permit abortions later than many other countries but it is not alone with China and North Korea.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 67 countries allow abortion on request, with most of them setting the limit at 12 weeks.

The United States is among a dozen nations that allow abortions to be carried out later along with China but also Britain (24 weeks), Canada (until term) and parts of Australia.

And the 12-weeks standard can be misleading because a number of countries permit legal access to abortion later for “social reasons, health reasons (and) socio-economic reasons,” said attorney Julie Rikelman, arguing in favor of maintaining the status quo in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday.


Few countries present such a patchwork of differing access to abortion within their borders, and most do not have the “same barriers in place” as does the United States, Rikelman told the Supreme Court.

Conservative US states, mostly in the South, have erected a number of obstacles in recent years restricting access to abortion, forcing many clinics to close.

Six US states have only a single abortion clinic each, including Mississippi.

A Texas law banning abortions after six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant, took effect on September 1 and the Supreme Court is yet to act on an emergency petition to stop it.

On the other hand, access to abortion is freely available in progressive states such as California and New York.

Nancy Northup, CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the United States is an outlier “in terms of progression on abortion rights.”

“The trend in the last 25 years has been liberalization of abortion laws,” Northup said, citing recent developments in Mexico, Argentina and Benin.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in the Mississippi case will not be known until June, Northup said the United States is already in an “incredible regressive phase” with more than 100 abortion restrictions passed this year alone.

Bitter debate 

The United States also sets itself apart from the rest of the world with the ferocity of the domestic debate over abortion.

Just 42 percent of Americans believe abortion should be permitted on demand compared with 75 percent in Sweden, 65 percent in Britain, 64 percent in France and 61 percent in Italy and Spain, according to a 2021 Ipsos poll.

In those other countries, the abortion debate has cooled since legalization.

Not so in the United States, where the Republican Party has used the emotional issue to mobilize voters, particularly those on the religious right.

Donald Trump, for example, was pro-choice in 1999 but ran for president in 2016 on a promise to nominate justices to the Supreme Court who were opposed to abortion.

He kept his pledge and the three justices nominated during his presidential term are expected to vote to roll back abortion rights.

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