Countries allowing abortion on request generally allow women and girls to make the decision on whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy within a specified gestational limit. After that limit expires, abortion may be permitted on specific grounds, such as when the woman’s life or health is at risk and in cases of rape, incest or fetal impairment. While the average gestational limit for abortion on request is 12 weeks, gestational limits globally range from 8 weeks to 24 weeks, with some countries not explicitly setting forth gestational limits.
Human Rights Norms
UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies
UN treaty monitoring bodies (TMBs) have consistently recognized that countries allowing abortion on request ensure abortion is accessible in practice. This includes:
- Ensure the affordability of sexual and reproductive health services, for example by ensuring universal coverage of abortion services under public health insurance.1
- Ensuring consistency in the implementation of abortion laws throughout a country to guarantee access to abortion services;2
- Ensuring that health providers’ conscientious objection does not impede women and girls’ access to legal abortion services;3 and
- Safeguarding existing legal rights to abortion and not taking steps to regress accessibility, such as through the introduction of fees or obligatory consultations;4
In their 2016 report, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice recommended that states “recognize women's right to be free from unwanted pregnancies and ensure access to affordable and effective family planning measures. Noting that many countries where women have the right to abortion on request supported by affordable and effective family planning measures have the lowest abortion rates in the world, States should allow women to terminate a pregnancy on request during the first trimester or later…”5
Global Medical Standards
In Safe abortion: technical and policy guidance for health systems, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes that the maternal mortality rate is generally lower in countries that permit abortion on request.6 The WHO also acknowledges that this is the only legal ground which “recognizes the conditions for a woman’s free choice.”7 According to the WHO, this legal ground developed following countries’ recognition of the fact that women and girls often seek abortions on more than one ground and that all of these grounds are legitimate without requiring a specific reason.8 The WHO, therefore, states that policies on abortion care should aim to “respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of women, including women’s dignity, autonomy and equality.”9
In countries that allow abortion on request, the woman or girl makes the decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy. Many of the countries that permit abortion on request regulate abortion care through their health laws. Some countries explicitly recognize a woman or girl’s decision on whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy as a right. For example, in 2014 France amended its Public Health Code to recognize that a “woman has the right to choose whether or not to continue with her pregnancy.”10 This extends to minors, who may seek abortion services without parental consent, instead bringing an adult of their choice. Similarly, Kazakhstan’s Code of Public Health and Health Care System recognizes an affirmative “right to abortion.”11
Most countries that permit abortion on request have gestational limits in place. After the gestational limit expires, abortion is often permitted on a number of specified grounds. For example, South Africa’s Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act legalizes abortion on request during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Thereafter, a woman can seek an abortion up to the 20th week of pregnancy if there is a risk to her physical or mental health, on broad social or economic grounds, and in cases of rape or incest. Moreover, there is no gestational limit place on a woman’s ability to have an abortion where continuing the pregnancy would endanger her life or in cases of fetal impairment.12 In 2012, Uruguay passed legislation permitting abortion on request during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and up to the 14th week if the pregnancy results from rape.13 Thereafter, abortion is permitted when the pregnancy would endanger the health of the woman or in cases of fetal impairment.14 Since the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision in R. v Morgentaler, which struck down the laws regulating abortion as they denied women their constitutionally protected rights to life, liberty and security of the person, Canada has permitted abortion on request without imposing a specific gestational limit.15
- 1. ESCR Committee, General Comment No. 22 (2016) on the right to sexual and reproductive health (article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights), para. 17, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/GC/22 (2016); Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Slovakia, para 41(c), U.N. Doc. CRC/C/SVK/CO3-5 (2016).
- 2. ESCR Committee, Concluding Observation: Italy, para 48-49, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/ITA/CO/5 (2015); ESCR Committee, Concluding Observations: Canada, para 52, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/CAN/CO/6 (2016); CEDAW Committee, Concluding Observations: Denmark, para 32, U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/DNK/CO/8 (2015).
- 3. ESCR Committee, Concluding Observations: Canada, para 52, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/CAN/CO/6 (2016); CEDAW Committee, Concluding Observation: Portugal, para 36-37, U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/PRT/CO/8-9 (2015); ESCR Committee, Concluding Observation: Italy, para 48-49, U.N. Doc. E/C.12/ITA/CO/5 (2015).
- 4. CEDAW Committee, Concluding Observations: Turkey, para 48(b), U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/TUR/CO/7 (2016); CEDAW Committee, Concluding Observation: Portugal, para 36-37, U.N. Doc CEDAW/C/PRT/CO/8-9 (2015).
- 5. Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the issues of discrimination against women in law and in practice, para 107(c), U.N. Doc. A/HRC/32/44 (2016).
- 6. World Health Organization, Safe Abortion: Technical and Policy Guidance for Health Systems 23 (2d ed. 2012).
- 7. Id. at 93.
- 8. Id.
- 9. Id. at 98.
- 10. Code de la Santé Publique (Health Code), art. L2212-1 (Fr.).
- 11. Code on Public Health and Health Care System (2009) arts. 96, 104 (Kaz.).
- 12. Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996 § 2 (S. Afr.).
- 13. Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Act (2012) arts. 2, 6 (Uru.).
- 14. Id.
- 15. R. v. Morgentaler,  S.C.R. 30 (Can.).