Abortion is not a crime, doctors warn governments

Doctors and health professionals from every region of the world today added their voices to the growing pressure for the decriminalization of abortion, with 838 from 44 countries signing an open letter to governments published today by Amnesty International.

The letter calls on governments to stop interfering with health professionals’ ability to provide care, warning that criminalizing abortion puts women and girls’ health and lives at risk.

“The criminalization of abortion prevents healthcare providers from delivering timely, medically indicated care in accordance with their patients’ wishes,” the letter says.

“It impedes and disregards sound medical judgment and can undermine the professional duty of care and confidentiality that doctors bear towards their patients.”

Globally, 40% of women of childbearing age live in countries where abortion is banned, highly restricted or otherwise inaccessible. Unsafe abortion accounts for 13% of maternal deaths, resulting in 47,000 women and girls dying each year.

“So many respected health professionals speaking out reaffirms what women have been saying for years; governments can no longer claim that criminalizing abortion has no impact on the health care that women and girls receive,” said Sara MacNeice, Manager of Amnesty International’s My Body My Rights campaign.

“Making criminals of women for abortion violates their human rights and can endanger their lives. In numerous countries around the world, Amnesty International has documented shocking cases of women forced to continue unviable pregnancies because of restrictive laws. We have seen women and girls pregnant as a result of rape forced to carry the foetus to term and give birth.

“International law is clear: at the very least women should have access to an abortion when the pregnancy poses a risk to the life or health of a pregnant woman or girl, in cases of severe or fatal foetal impairment, and in cases of rape or incest. International law is also says that under no circumstances should a woman be made a criminal for having an abortion.”

Amnesty International’s global My Body My Rights campaign aims to stop the control and criminalization of sexuality and reproduction by governments. It has highlighted the situation in El Salvador, Ireland and Chile, three countries where legal barriers to abortion severely limit doctors’ ability to provide women the healthcare they need.

Doctors in Ireland, El Salvador and many other countries have spoken to Amnesty International of the restrictions abortion laws place on their ability to provide care to their patients.

El Salvador

Health professionals in El Salvador risk prosecution and imprisonment of six to 12 years for providing abortion services, under any circumstances. As a result, they are reduced to monitoring the woman’s condition for sufficient deterioration before undertaking any procedure, which could harm the foetus, according to an Amnesty International report issued in September 2014.

A doctor working in a maternal health unit in a public hospital in El Salvador told Amnesty International how the law prevents doctors from acting if complications during pregnancy threaten a woman’s health:

“We’re not discussing a medical question, but a purely legal one. We all know what needs to be done, but we go back to the fact that we all have our hands tied by what is written in the law.”


Doctors and health care providers in the Republic of Ireland may face up to 14 years in jail if they provide, or assist in providing, an abortion other than when a woman or girl’s life is at risk, even where they act to protect her health.

In a June 2015 report, doctors told Amnesty International that they face a choice of either breaking the law or providing potentially dangerous – and unethical – care to their patients.

Dr. Peter Boylan, an obstetrician, gynaecologist and former Master and Clinical Director of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital told Amnesty International about the legal and ethical tightrope medical staff are forced to walk:

“Under the [current law] we must wait until women become sick enough before we can intervene. How close to death do you have to be? There is no answer to that.”


In Chile, under the Criminal Code health professionals risk prison for assisting or carrying out an abortion. Health professionals themselves often report abortions to the police.

Obstetrician René Castro highlighted the problems caused by having to wait until there is an imminent danger before being able to take action:

“Today there is a much greater consensus internationally when talking about quality of life. The issue is whether I wait until a woman is in intensive care because of a grave complication of a pre-existing condition before taking action, or whether I’m going to forestall this serious episode and accept it when a woman tells me “Doctor, I’d prefer to terminate the pregnancy before I get to that point” because “the focus should be on the woman’s own decision”.”