Abortion, termination of pregnancy before the fetus is capable of independent life. When the expulsion from the womb occurs after the fetus becomes viable (capable of independent life), usually at the end of six months of pregnancy, it is technically a premature birth.
The practice of abortion was widespread in ancient times as a method of birth control. Later it was restricted or forbidden by most world religions, but it was not considered an offense in secular law until the 19th century. During that century, first the English Parliament and then American state legislatures prohibited induced abortion to protect women from surgical procedures that were at the time unsafe, commonly stipulating a threat to the woman's life as the sole ("therapeutic") exception to the prohibition. Occasionally the exception was enlarged to include danger to the mother's health as well.
Legislative action in the 20th century has been aimed at permitting the termination of unwanted pregnancies for medical, social, or private reasons.
Abortions at the woman's request were first allowed by the Soviet Union in 1920, followed by Japan and several East European nations after World War II. In the late 1960s liberalized abortion regulations became widespread. The impetus for the change was threefold: (1) infanticide and the high maternal death rate associated with illegal abortions, (2) a rapidly expanding world population, (3) the growing feminist movement. By 1980, countries where abortions were permitted only to save a woman's life contained about 20 percent of the world's population. Countries with moderately restrictive laws--abortions permitted to protect a woman's health, to end pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, to avoid
genetic or congenital defects, or in response to social problems such as unmarried status or inadequate income--contained some 40 percent of the world's population. Abortions at the woman's request, usually with limits...