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Global history

Almost two-thirds of the world's women now live in countries where abortion is available on request, or for a broad range of social, economic or personal reasons. In our Global History of Abortion feature we explain how abortion evolved and was contested in different countries and cultures.

In the mid-1840s abortion became widely acceptable and abortionists set up practices and advertised their services in the new popular tabloid newspapers. The New York Times in 1870, instigated a campaign against abortion and by 1900 it was illegal everywhere. In 1973, the US Supreme Court found that women had a Constitutional right to abortion and by fiat [decree] struck down all state abortion laws.

Until the ground-breaking Bourne case in 1938, abortion was prohibited under British law. In the 1966, encouraged by the Abortion Law Reform Association and other interest groups, Liberal MP David Steel, promoted his abortion bill. On 27th October, 1967, the Abortion Act became law in England, Scotland and Wales. In 1990, Section 37 amended the 1967 Abortion Act by introducing an upper time limit of 24 weeks for most abortions.

In 1981, the Dutch government made legal what had been freely available for years. The law authorizes a woman and her doctor to decide whether there exists an "intolerable situation". Abortion is allowed up to the 24th week, with a compulsory waiting period of five days. The Netherland's abortion rate is lower than any other countries, however menstrual extraction is widely used and there is some debate as to whether this procedure is always recorded.

Since 1957, China has one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world. Abortion is free on request. In 1979 the Chinese government implemented a "one-child policy", although rural families may have up to two children in very restricted circumstances. The official Chinese policy is that the "one-child" policy involves voluntary cooperation on the part of women. The U.S. Department of State gave evidence to the House International Relations Committee during a December 14, 2004 hearing, that investigators had found that China is using coercion to enforce its "one-child" per couple policy.

Ireland and Northern Ireland

When the 1967 Abortion Act went through Westminster, Northern Ireland had its own parliament, which decided not to take up the issue, as was their right. The Blair Labour Government, supported by the FPA, has made repeated attempts to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, the battle over abortion has been fierce and divisive. The trend has been for the issue to be decided by public referendum rather than the courts, and abortion is not legal.

Planned parenthood

International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) is an International organisation linking to most Family Planning organisations globally. The IPPF and affiliated organisations campaign for and are committed to promoting sexual and reproductive health (i.e. abortion on demand). Planned Parenthood (then ABCL) was originally founded in 1916 by Margaret Sanger and is the largest provider of abortion services in the USA.


National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) is a US-based organisation that began in the late 1960's. It was set up by a Doctor, a magazine writer and a leader of the Women's Lib movement. Their purpose was, and is, to have abortion legal in the United States. They are a strong lobby-group influencing politicians, the medical profession and the media.

China & the UNFPA

China has a one-child policy that enforces strict regulation of birth-control matters. Abortion is common practice, and often enforced. It has been estimated that since 1981, over a hundred million baby girls in China have died through abortion, infanticide, abandonment, and neglect. Coerced abortions in China are denied by the UNFPA and there is conflict over the US funding of abortion services in China.


UNICEF, which initially focussed on basic child survival and development now collaborates with other agencies in promoting abortion policies as a woman's right to "reproductive health." There are calls for child health to be put back on UNICEF's agenda.

Magaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger founded the Birth Control League which was later renamed Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She is regarded by many as the "champion of birth control," although anti-abortion activists claim that her vision of "birth control" was really an attempt to limit the elements of the population she considered undesirable.

Ronald Reagan

In an essay by Ronald Reagan, published in 1983 while fortieth president of the United States, on the tenth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade he says, "We have so many families in America seeking to adopt children that the slogan 'every child a wanted child' is now the emptiest of all reasons to tolerate abortion."