Skip to content

Comparing European and American Abortion Laws

Leer en Español

The leak of the Supreme Court draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which would send the issue of abortion back to the states, has awakened a political storm in America. The discussions over abortion in America, however, have lacked a global context. The U.S. is not the only country in the world where abortions are performed, which is why it could be useful to compare how abortion laws in Europe with those in our nation.

Discussions over abortion regulations in America tend to be framed by the media as a debate between “restricting” and “expanding” abortion laws. For example, when describing the series of abortion bills being discussed in state legislatures, Axios describes the laws discussed by the GOP as “restrictive” and those proposed by Democrats have the goal to “expand” access to abortion.

These terms might be accurate within our nation’s context, but they are not taking into account how the laws compare with similar regulations in other developed countries, and since abortion is not an issue exclusive to America, a well-informed, nuanced conversation over the issue needs to take into account a comparison between current American abortion laws fare in comparison to its European peers.

Washington (United States), 03/05/2022.- Pro-choice protesters rally outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, USA, 03 May 2022. The Supreme Court is prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that for nearly 50 years has guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion, according to reports about a leaked document. (Protestas, Estados Unidos) EFE/EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

An overview of abortion laws in the U.S. today

Due to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, abortion is considered to be a constitutional right in the entire country, but every state has different regulations on abortion. Many of the differences between state laws are centered on the funding, procedure, and permits required in order for an abortion to be conducted.  For example, some states have regulations that authorize the use of public funds to finance almost all abortions while others limit state funding to abortions in case of rape or incest.

The timeframe in which abortions should be legal or not, however, relies heavily on the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which decided that states should not impose “undue burdens” on abortions before the viability of the fetus. This standard has been a very debated topic, as the advancement of medical technology puts into question when should a fetus be considered viable, but most states allow abortion at least until the 20th week (fifth month) of pregnancy.

Washington (Usa), 29/01/2021.- Anti abortion campaigners take part in the ‘March for Life’ in event in Washington DC, USA, 29 January 2021. The annual event which is in its 48th year campaigns marks the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade which legalised abortion in the United States. (Estados Unidos) EFE/EPA/WILL OLIVER

According to pro-abortion think tank Guttmacher Institute, 42 states in the country allow abortions to occur up until the fifth month of pregnancy, with many (like Nevada) actually legalizing them until the 24th week or up to the last trimester (like Virginia) of the pregnancy. Six other states, plus the District of Columbia, have no time restrictions on the legality of abortions.

The only state that outlaws abortions before the 5th month, as of now, is the state of Texas which bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, usually at the sixth week of pregnancy. Some of the 42 states, like Florida or Mississippi that allow abortions well into the second trimester of the pregnancy have passed laws that would outlaw abortions after the 15th week. The fate of these laws, however, will depend on the final decision the Supreme Court makes on Roe and Casey.

In summary, while states do differ on the details over how should an abortion be conducted and who should pay for them, most states allow abortions well past the half of the pregnancy, and many even have no restrictions whatsoever over when should an abortion be conducted.

Abortion laws in Europe

Those are the laws in America, how do they compare with Europe? Well, of course, the answer will depend on the country. If the question is over public funding for abortions, then most of Europe will have “expanded” abortion more than America, as many countries provide public finance for abortion on demand. However, if the question is based on when are abortions legal or not, the answer will be a very different one.

It is true that some countries, like the UK, have similar legal timeframes for abortions as the United States. The United Kingdom has arguably one of the most permissive abortion regulations in the continent, as Britain allows abortions to be carried out for a large variety of reasons up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Finland has a similar framework, allowing abortions for many reasons (including socioeconomic ones) up to the 24th week, similar to some states in America. The UK and Finland, however, are more of an exception rather than the rule in the way abortion is legislated in the old continent.

While Florida and Mississippi’s laws banning most abortions after 15 weeks have been classified as restrictive by pro-choice activists and politicians, the limits from those states would not be considered as out of the norm in many European countries.

Washington (Usa), 29/01/2021.- Anti abortion campaginers take part in the ‘March for Life’ event in Washington DC, USA, 29 January 2021. The annual event which is in its 48th year campaigns marks the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade which legalised abortion in the United States. (Estados Unidos) EFE/EPA/WILL OLIVER

Numerous countries have outlawed on-demand abortions at a similar point as Florida and Mississippi plan to do. According to the website abortreport.eu,  Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland prohibit on-demand abortions for any reason after the 15th week.

In fact, many of these countries outlaw abortions for reasons like saving the mother’s life or due to fetal impediment at a stage when many U.S. states allow on-demand abortions. For example, Denmark only allows abortions to save a mother’s life up to the 22nd week, while Spain’s limit is set on the 24th week. In contrast, Vermont does not have any timeframe limit on abortions.

If the logic used by pro-choice activists is used to evaluate the abortion laws in Europe, then countries like Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland have imposed laws that are the dream of radical conservatives everywhere, which would be a strange argument to make when describing the modern politics of these countries.

As the country waits with bated breath for the final decision of the Supreme Court on abortion, the debate over “restrictive” abortion laws across the country will surely be reignited. It is important, however, to evaluate these terms in a more broad, global perspective.

Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.

Leave a Reply