ABORTION PENALTIES – A global review of penalties for abortion-related offences in 182 countries

BMJ Global Health 2023;8:e010405. doi:10.1136/ bmjgh-2022-010405  (Open access)

by Sanhita Ambast, Hazal Atay, Antonella Lavelanet


Public health research and human rights bodies have demonstrated the risks involved with criminalising abortion services and noted a need for full decriminalisation. Despite this, abortions are criminalised in some circumstances in almost all countries in the world today. This paper uses data from the Global Abortion Policies Database (GAPD) to analyse what criminal penalties exist for those who are seeking, providing and assisting in abortions in 182 countries. This paper uses data on abortion-related penalties available on the GAPD as of October 2022. It includes which actors are penalised, whether specific penalties exist for negligence, non-consensual abortions, whether any secondary additional considerations/judicial discretion exist in sentencing and the legal sources for these penalties. 134 countries penalise abortion-seekers, 181 countries penalise abortion-providers and 159 countries penalise persons assisting in abortions. The maximum penalty is between 0 and 5 years of imprisonment in a majority of countries; however, it can be much higher in other countries. Some countries further prescribe fines, and professional sanctions for providers and those who assist. 34 countries restrict the dissemination of information about abortion. The range of possible penalties across countries and associated aggravating and mitigating factors for imposing these penalties support arguments for the decriminalisation of abortion on the grounds of arbitrariness. Abortions are also predominantly regulated through the criminal law, which may compound the stigma associated with seeking, assisting with and/or providing abortions when it is criminalised. There has been no comprehensive study of penalties for abortion at a global level. This article describes what specific penalties abortion seekers and providers face, what factors may increase or decrease these penalties, and the legal sources for these penalties. The findings provide additional evidence of the arbitrariness and potential for stigma associated with the criminalisation of abortion and strengthen the case for decriminalisation.