Friday, August 23, 2013

How many countries allow for abortion after 20 weeks?

Many, but it depends.

The fact check site PolitiFact did a nice job analyzing the question and, in doing so, providing a clear summary of the major differences between abortion laws among countries.

Politicians love to use a certain rhetorical technique when conveying information: They make a statement that draws a narrow frame around just the set of facts that they want the listener to hear.

In this case, Carly Fiorina (former CEO and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate) asserted that only four countries in the world "legalize abortion after five months" (about 20 weeks), including the United States. Two of those countries have 'bad' governments-- North Korea and China-- and the other is our 'socialist' neighbor to the north, Canada. If you want to get people fired up over a government policy, comparing us to China and North Korea is the way to do it. (People on the left tend to do the same thing, just on different issues.)

At any rate, is Fiorina's statement true? Half-true, says PolitiFact:
Fiorina said only four countries allow legal abortions five months into the gestational period. The United States, Canada, North Korea and China do fit that measure, but Singapore and the Netherlands, which Fiorina left off her list, do as well. Far more countries permit abortions in certain circumstances in which the pregnancy would damage the woman’s well-being, be it physical, mental or economic. Fiorina’s claim is based in fact but misses the mark, so we rate it Half True.
Ironically, Fiorina's statement is half-true precisely because of a phenomenon that pro-life politicians and activists love to point out: Exceptions to abortion laws, as enforced, can be tantamount to legalization.

In the six countries in which abortions after 20 weeks are "legal," there is no prohibition against abortions until a later stage in gestation. In dozens of other countries, abortion after 20 weeks (or 12 weeks or some other point) is generally illegal but there are exceptions to the general prohibition.

Regarding exceptions:
  1. An exception can be written in a way that allows for a wide range of behavior. Put another way, if an exception is written too broadly, it can swallow the rule. American abortion opponents make this point about American abortion law-- that the "life or health" exception in Roe and Casey is so broad that it essentially allows for women to obtain abortions for almost any vague "health" reason up to the point of birth. This is why almost all pro-life legislative proposals contain only an exception directed to clinically diagnosable physical threats to a pregnant woman's life or health (not vague mental or socioeconomic "health" reasons). 
  2. An exception can be enforced in a way that essentially translates into legalization in practice. 
Given that American pro-lifers constantly make this point about abortion laws and their exceptions, it is disingenuous for someone like Fiorina to assert that only four countries in the world "legalize" abortion after 20 weeks. 

Links:

Analysis in PolitiFact (August 18, 2013): "There are only four countries in the world that . . . legalize abortion after five months-- China, North Korea, Canada, and the U.S."

For more explanation and analysis of how abortion exceptions work in practice, see this earlier post of mine.

The Center for Reproductive Rights categorizes the abortion laws of all countries in this one-page fact sheet: The World's Abortion Laws Map 2013 Update

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