Abortion Law

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Definition: Abortion Law

Abortion Law

Full Definition of Abortion Law

Abortion has been a controversial subject throughout history due to the moral and ethical issues that surround it. It has been regularly banned and otherwise limited, though abortions have continued to be commonplace in many areas where it is illegal. Almost 2/3 of the world’s women currently reside in countries where abortion may be obtained on request, for a broad range of social, economic, or personal reasons. Abortion laws vary widely by country, ranging from Malta, which bans abortion entirely, to Canada, which places no restrictions on the provision of abortion whatsoever. Both supporters and opponents of legal abortion believe their position addresses a fundamental human right. In the abortion debate, the perceived rights of the fetus are uniquely pitted against a woman’s perceived right to control her body.


Abortion and contraception have been widely available throughout the history of Western Civilization, despite ethical concerns. Plato and Aristotle both argued in favor of compulsory abortion under certain circumstances, though Hippocrates expressly disapproved of the practice. Under Roman law, life was said to begin at birth. Abortions were thus legal, though regulated to protect the rights of the father. References to abortion were included in the writings of Ovid, Seneca, Juvenal, and Pliny, who included a list of abortifacients (drugs that induce an abortion) in one text. Early Christian philosophers, including St. Augustine, Ivo of Chartres, and Gratian, disapproved of abortion when it broke the link between the sexual act and procreation, but argued that abortion of what Ivo termed an ‘unformed embryo’ did not constitute homicide.

Religious authorities have taken various positions on abortion throughout history (see Religion and abortion). In 1588, Pope Sixtus V adopted a papal bull adopting the position of St. Thomas Aquinas that contraception and abortion were crimes against nature and sins against marriage. This verdict was relaxed three years later by Pope Gregory XIV, who pronounced that abortion before ‘hominization’ should not be subject to church penalties that were any stricter than civil penalties. Common law positions on abortion in individual countries varied significantly from country to country. English common law considered abortions before ‘quickening’ – when the movements of the fetus could first be felt by the mother – to be morally and legally acceptable.

Many Western countries began to make abortion illegal in the 19th century. Anti-abortion forces were led by a combination of conservative groups opposed to abortion on moral grounds and medical professionals who were concerned about the danger presented by the procedure and the regular involvement of non-medical personnel in performing abortions.

It became clear in the following years, however, that illegal abortions continued to take place in large numbers even where abortions were expressly illegal. It was difficult to obtain sufficient evidence to prosecute the mothers and doctors, and judges and juries were often reluctant to convict. Many were also outraged at the invasion of privacy and the medical problems resulting from abortions taking place illegally in medically dangerous circumstances. Political movements soon coalesced around the legalization of abortion and liberalization of existing laws.

By the early 20th century, many countries had begun to legalize abortions when performed to protect the life of the mother, and in some cases to protect the health of the mother. Under Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union legalized all abortions in 1920, but this was fully reversed in 1936 by Joseph Stalin in order to increase population growth. Iceland was the first Western country to legalize therapeutic abortion under limited circumstances, doing so in 1935, and the earliest country to do so without recriminalizing it later. Only a handful of countries – mostly in Scandinavia decriminalized abortion before Britain in 1967. Others soon followed, including Canada (1969), the United States (1973 in most states), France (1975), West Germany (1976), New Zealand (1977), Italy (1978), and the Netherlands (1980).

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Definition Sources

Definitions for Abortion Law are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 26th November, 2021 | 0 Views.