Ethnocentrism pervades American thought processes. Hearing Roe v. Wade stirs up strong and varying emotions for most Americans, but Attorney General v. X, a key abortion ruling in Ireland, would likely evoke blank stares. An issue unconfined by United States boundaries, abortion affects nearly every nation in the world. Although acknowledging unique aspects of issues, such as abortion, that face one’s own country is useful, looking beyond the familiar provides greater depths of insight for informing decisions. In the same way that opinions of abortion differ in the United States, various approaches to this controversial issue exist worldwide. Studying laws, societal pressures, and demographics concerning international practices proves integral in removing the ethnocentric veil Americans wear when approaching issues surrounding abortion.
Before detailing laws, social pressures and demographics concerning abortion, two points of clarification are necessary. First, all references to abortion in this paper will indicate induced abortion instead of spontaneous abortion. Also called miscarriages, spontaneous abortions do not stem from a woman’s choice but from physical complications that occur during pregnancy. Induced abortion statistics, however, do include instances of menstrual regulation in addition to doctor-performed procedures. A second explanatory point pertains to the fallibility of abortion statistics. Commenting on the difficulties associated with gathering abortion statistics, Clementine Rossier asserts, “The task of measuring the incidence of induced abortion varies substantially depending on the legal status of the practice” (87). Although data for legal abortions is substantial in most cases, doubt enters when including estimates of illegal abortion rates. Uncertainty does not negate statistics, but it does necessitate caution when drawing conclusions.
First, focusing on laws governing abortion will demonstrate the role legal stipulations play in determining a woman’s ability to obtain abortion services worldwide. In their review of international abortion laws from 1985-1997, Rahman, Katzive, and Henshaw note, “Although the legal status of induced abortion is not the only factor influencing women’s ability to access abortion services, it remains a key determinant” (56). This report goes on to assert that countries base laws controlling abortion on five categories: saving a woman’s life, helping her physical health, maintaining mental wellbeing, ensuring socioeconomic stability, and granting a woman freedom to choose without specific reason.
Although the United States has lenient laws governing abortion in comparison to most other countries, a surprising lack of correlation exists between the establishment of harsh laws and the existence of low abortion rates. Worldwide, more countries limit abortions to instances when pregnancy places a woman’s life in danger than any other scenario. Because of the harsh penalties governments impose on doctors who subvert the law, many doctors refuse abortion services. Illegal abortions then become a lucrative, but dangerous, alternative. An article published by The Economist asserts, “Restricting abortions… has little effect on the number of abortions terminated. Rather, it drives women to seek illegal, often unsafe abortions that result in 67,000 deaths a year” (81). Latin American abortion trends exemplify this finding. Even with stringent regulations against abortion, Latin America-according to the World Health Organization- has the highest abortion rate (number of abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44) for any continent in the world. A report published by the Guttmacher Institute in 2007 concerning global problems with illegal abortion reveals, “Worldwide, an estimated 5 million women are hospitalized every year for treatment of complications related to unsafe abortion” (Sedgh 1344). Instead of helping to reduce problems associated with abortion, strict laws often drive women to drastic-and potentially deadly-measures to obtain the procedure.
Maternal hospitalizations and death tolls decrease in nations without abortion restrictions, but the implications of “no restriction” are often misleading. As highlighted by Rahman, Katzive, and Henshaw in their article entitled “A Global review of Laws on Induced Abortion, 1985-1997,” countries that claim not to have restrictions still create barriers to abortion. Cuba and France, for example, require unmarried women to obtain parental approval before undergoing abortions. Turkey’s supposed “non-restrictive” policy increases stipulations by enforcing spousal approval. Instead of limiting abortions because of familial opinions, some unrestrictive countries create prerequisites based on characteristics of a fetus: “Many… nations… impose a gestational limit during which women can readily access abortions” (Rahman, Katzive, and Henshaw 58). Ranging from twelve to twenty-four weeks, these restrictions reveal governmental beliefs regarding the age when a fetus has the ability to sustain human life. Allowing women to access abortions readily does not coincide with high abortion rates. In his findings concerning abortion trends, Sedgh reports, “The abortion rate per 1,000 women was lowest in western Europe (12). . . [where] most abortions are legal and abortion incidence has been low for decades” (1342- 1343). Because laws governing abortion are poor indicators of international abortion rates, Americans who are concerned with lowering the incidence of abortion must shift their attention to other aspects of this complex issue.
A second integral aspect in determining whether a woman aborts or carries a baby to term-even more influential than government restrictions-is the societal pressure she faces. Religion forms strong stigmas against abortion in many societies. Noticing this trend, Mundigo asserts, “Some societies censure abortion based on traditional and religious values… the most vocal in opposing abortion is the Roman Catholic Church” (52). Societal pressures that Catholicism imposes against abortion often strengthen into laws. For example, the dominant Catholic presence in Ireland has led to low abortion rates even before anti-abortion laws came into existence. The desire to increase fertility rates and population present in certain societies also influences some women to carry babies to term (Henshaw 12). Recounting Romania’s attempt to increase population, Henshaw moves on to clarify, “In order to promote high fertility, the Romanian government substantially limited the availability of abortion services… and authorized the investigation of all women who experienced miscarriages” (13). Although Romania does not impose restrictive laws governing abortion, societal pressure to increase population has caused many women to carry unwanted babies to term.
Allowing abortion and encouraging women to obtain abortions prove more common worldwide, especially in Asia. Unlike the Catholic Church, which classifies fetuses as humans, many Eastern belief systems contend that birth, not conception, begins human life. Commenting on abortion trends in Asia, Caldwell and Caldwell state, “Nothing in Confucian or Shinto ethics or Hindu religion forbids abortion, and… Little opposition in East Asia or India [exists]” (4). The religious environment in Asia not only allows women to obtain abortions, but the societal pressures present often make abortion necessary. Stemming from the shame of admitting premarital sexual activity, unmarried females in Asia often undergo secret abortion procedures to retain honor (Caldwell 2). Chantel and Yves Blayo further demonstrate the necessity of certain abortions in Asia by offering a case study from China: “At the start of 1979, Chinese couples were invited, more or less firmly, to pledge to have only one child . . . parents who did not cooperate faced an extremely strong social pressure, accompanied by informal penalties” (240). Continuing to face this pressure, families in China still use abortion to lower family sizes and ensure that their only children are males. Internationally, pressure stemming from religious beliefs and societal needs prove powerful in a determining whether women carry babies to term or aborting the unborn.
A final approach to removing the ethnocentric ideas Americans have when discussing abortion stems from studying the demographics of women who obtain this procedure on an international scale. In an article detailing the characteristics of women who obtain abortions worldwide, Bankole, Singh, and Haas write, “In the great majority of the 56 countries for which we have data, the highest proportions of abortions occur among women aged 20-24” (70). Women worldwide generally reach peaks in both sexual activity and fertility during their early twenties. Because of this, the number of unwanted pregnancies that occur in this age group soars, and increases in unwanted pregnancies correlate directly with higher abortion rates. As women get older, their likelihood of being married increases, but marital status does not greatly decrease abortion rates. Stemming from the use of abortions to place distance between childbirths and to limit family size, “Married women obtain a substantial proportion of abortions-40% or more in 24 of the 40 countries for which data is available” (Bankole, Singh, and Haas 72). Data from this report also demonstrates that a higher percentage of unmarried women obtain abortions in the United States than in any other country.
The economic status and strivings of countries and individual women stand as one of the strongest determinants for whether a woman will choose to abort. Statistics from a report published in conjunction with the World Health Organization show that although abortion rates remain similar between developing and developed countries, eighty-three percent of all abortions occur in developing nations (Sedgh 1341). Ranging from women lacking the financial means to support a child to lacking knowledge concerning contraceptives, many reasons exist for high abortion statistics in developing countries. Strivings for education and subsequent economic success lead many women worldwide to abort pregnancies. Bankole, Singh, and Haas comment on the two-fold repercussions of a woman’s quest for knowledge:
Better educated women… have stronger motivation to achieve a smaller family size and to prevent unplanned births, given the greater opportunity costs for them…Younger, educated women may terminate unintended pregnancy in order to complete their education or gain work experience before starting a family. (75)
In order to increase their status and achieve a better quality of life, many women choose to abort unwanted pregnancies. National economic status and a woman’s individual economic status combine to play a profound role on whether women choose to carry babies to term or to abort pregnancies.International complexities surrounding abortion such as restrictive legal stipulations, influential social pressures, and general female characteristics ultimately bring the assurance with which some Americans approach this issue into question. Abortion reaches to the very core of human beliefs. Gaining a deeper understanding of dimensions surrounding the decisions many women must make concerning how to end their pregnancies may not alter the deeply rooted values most people hold. Expanded knowledge of the hardships women around the world and within American communities face daily, however, can remove ethnocentric veils covering American hearts and minds to allow for the emergence of greater sympathy for humanity.
Bankole, Akinrinola, Susheela Singh, and Taylor Haas. “Characteristics of Women Who Obtain Induced Abortion: A worldwide Review.” International Family Planning Perspectives 25.3 (1999): 68-77. JSTOR. Grove City College Lib., Grove City. 19 February 2008 .
Caldwell, John C., and Pat Caldwell. “Introduction: Induced Abortion in a Changing World.” The Sociocultural and Political Aspects of Abortion. Ed. Alaka M. Basu. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Mundigo, Axel. “The Challenge of Induced Abortion Research: Transdisciplinary Perspectives.” The Sociocultural and Political Aspects of Abortion. Ed. Alaka M. Basu. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Rahman, Anika, Laura Katzive, and Stanley Henshaw. “A Global Review of Laws on Induced Abortion, 1985-1997.” International Family Planning Perspectives 24.2 (1998): 56-64. JSTOR. Grove City College Lib., Grove City. 19 February 2008 .
Rossier, Clementine. “Estimating Induced Abortion Rates: A Review.” Studies in Family Planning 34.2 (2003): 87-102. JSTOR. Grove City College Lib., Grove City. 19 February 2008 .
“Safe, legal and falling.” The Economist Oct. 2007: 81. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Grove City College Lib., Grove City. 26 February 2008 .
Sedgh, Gilda, Stanley Henshaw, and Susheela Sing. “Induced Abortion: Rates and Trends Worldwide.” The Lancet 370 (2007): 1338-1345.Yves, Chantal, and Blayo Yves. “The Social Pressure to Abort.” The Sociocultural and Political Aspects of Abortion. Ed. Alaka M. Basu. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.