The dramatic manner, in which Japan halved her birth rate in a decade (1948-1958), mainly through the use of abortion, has highlighted the demographic effectiveness of this method of controlling population growth.
Though very few countries such as Singapore and Tunisia stated explicitly that liberalised abortion laws were in pursuance of anti-natalist policies, a distinct change has been observed in recent years in the attitude of several countries towards abortion.
According to the information collected by Tietze, as of mid-1978, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population resided in the countries which allowed abortion at the request of the pregnant woman or permitted it on broadly interpreted social, economic and personal grounds.
The world situation as of mid-1978 may be further elaborated as follows: “Nine per cent of the world’s population lived in countries where abortion was prohibited without exception, and 11 per cent lived in countries where it was permitted only to save the life of the pregnant woman.
Around 14 per cent lived under statutes authorising abortion on broader medical grounds, that is, to avert a threat to the woman’s health rather than to her life (with mental health specifically mentioned in several countries), and sometimes on eugenic, or foetal, or indication (known genetic or other impairment of the foetus or increased risk of such impairment) and/or judicial indication (rape, incest etc.) as well.
Twenty-five per cent of the world’s population resided in countries in which social factors, such as inadequate income, substandard housing, unmarried status, and the like, could be taken into consideration in the evaluation of the threat to the woman’s health (social-medical indication) or in which adverse social conditions alone, without reference to health, could justify termination of pregnancy.
Countries allowing abortion on request without specifying reasons for at least some categories of women-generally defined in terms of age, number of children, and/ or duration of pregnancy-accounted for 39 per cent. In the latter group of countries, abortions on medical grounds were generally permitted beyond the gestation limit prescribed for elective abortion.
No information is available for the remaining 2 per cent of the world’s people; it would appear, however, that most of them lived in areas with restrictive abortion laws.” 34
One striking finding of this world-wide survey was that the majority of the countries with highly liberalised abortion laws already had low birth rates and some of them even had pro-natalist population policies.
In these countries the major reasons for liberal abortion laws were non-demographic. These reasons included considerations of public health, social justice and women’s rights.
On the other hand, several developing countries have liberal abortion laws, obviously with demographic objectives, either explicitly or implicitly stated. These include, China, Hong Kong, India, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Asia, Uruguay in Latin America and Tunisia and Zambia in Africa.
Liberal abortion laws alone, however, cannot be expected to have an impact on fertility. Medical infrastructure has to be adequate and health services have to be easily available before any decline in the population growth rate can be attributed to abortion.
The developing countries with liberal abortion laws cannot claim to fulfill these two conditions. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, where since 1959 abortion laws have been liberal and efficient and medical infrastructure easily available, a continuous decline in Birth rates has been observed.
The impact of liberalised abortion laws is evident from the fact that, in some of these countries, birth rates have declined drastically and have actually become a cause of serious concern.
That is why countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which once had liberal abortion laws, instituted some restrictive abortion laws.