Speaking to press after introducing a bill restricting abortion at the federal level after 15 weeks, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made the case that such legislation was fully in the mainstream in the international community.
“The world, pretty much, has spoken on this issue,” he said, later adding: “To my Democratic friends, you’re going around calling all of us every name you can think of — we’re a bunch of wackos. Your idea is wacko, not ours.”
Graham’s assertion that a 15-week federal abortion ban would “get America back in line with the rest of the world” is based on out-of-context and out-of-date information, however. In fact, the rest of the world, including Europe, is moving toward making abortion more accessible, according to experts.
“It’s a really false equivalency,” said Lindsay Parham, executive director of the Wallace Center for Maternal Child and Adolescent Health at the University of California, Berkeley.
While many European countries place limits on how far into a pregnancy a person can legally receive an abortion upon request, the procedure is not banned after that time has passed, said Leah Hoctor, the senior regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. Abortion remains accessible on other grounds, including socioeconomic circumstances and mental health. “No European country that allows abortion bans it after 15 weeks of pregnancy,” Hoctor said.
“There’s something highly disingenuous with the notion that introducing a new ban on abortion into law in the United States would somehow align with the approach in Europe,” said Hoctor, noting that even within the last year, European countries have reformed laws to make abortion more accessible, not less. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the country is just one of four to restrict legal access to abortion in the last 28 years, while 58 countries have made their policies less restrictive.
In a news release, Graham’s office noted that the vast majority of European countries have gestational limits on abortion before 15 weeks. But abortion rights advocates take issue with characterizing these limits or laws that allow abortion on grounds such as socioeconomic conditions or health, like the United Kingdom, as “bans.”
While the United Kingdom does not explicitly legalize abortion on the legal grounds of request, the broad grounds upon which it does allow abortion make it one of the “most enabling environments for access to abortion in the world,” Hoctor said. The United Kingdom was rated by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in a September 2021 report as having among the strongest abortion access policies in Europe, third only to Iceland and Sweden.
Hoctor said that “anyone who needs access to abortion in England or in Wales or Scotland gets access to abortion within that 24-week time frame.”
Parham pointed out that, in general, those countries’ gestational limits are not actually bans on abortion but rather laws that are written to explicitly entitle citizens to abortion early in pregnancy and allow for later-term abortions with broad criteria. In fact, Parham compared it to a legal landscape that is much more akin to the United States’ before Roe v. Wade was overturned.
“You’re not just working on this very medicalized and also legally and medically ambiguous discussion of life and health of the mother,” she said.
Among countries that permit elective abortions, 60 have gestational limits of 15 weeks or earlier. The most common is 12 weeks. But in some countries with such limits, like Germany, there are liberal circumstances in which a pregnant person may access abortion after that milestone has passed, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. In the U.K. and France, there are considerations for a pregnant person’s mental health and socioeconomic status, for example, Parham said. She also pointed out that getting an abortion prior to the gestational limit is much easier in these countries.
“In the European Union, most countries have in place a system for access and payment that make obtaining an earlier abortion within a gestational time frame much easier and much less dramatic and politicized,” Parham said.
Six European countries — Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway and Spain — cover abortion under public health insurance, Hoctor noted.
Graham’s office did not return requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Americans seeking abortions to protect their health have been turned away, according to Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“The loss of Roe has thrown the country into a public health crisis,” Northup said in an email. “Pregnant people in life threatening situations are being turned away from hospitals. Doctors are being forced to choose between doing what’s best for their patients or risking arrest.”
Experts said poorer healthcare and maternal outcomes in the United States show that the consequences of a 15-week ban in the U.S. could have far worse consequences than a seemingly equivalent policy in Europe. At least one study found an increase in serious pregnancy-related complications in Texas hospitals after the state enacted its six-week abortion ban last year. The United States already has a maternal mortality rate that exceeds that of the many of the countries Graham is trying to draw parallels to.
“That’s only going to get worse [now that Roe is overturned],” Parham said. “More people will need to carry their pregnancies to term in states where the maternal mortality rates are highest.”
A previous version of this article misidentified the identity of the organization that rated the U.K.'s policies on access to abortion. This version has been corrected.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.