Skip to main content

Structure, Empowerment and the Liberalization of Cross-National Abortion Rights

  • Victor Asal (a1), Mitchell Brown (a2) and Renee Gibson Figueroa (a1)

Economic, cultural, and political opportunity structures have been separately shown to facilitate and constrain abortion rights. We examine two central and related questions: First, which factors explain liberalization of different types of abortion laws? Second, which factor or set of factors is the most important in explaining abortion laws? The cross-national literature suggests a three-pronged explanation for the existence of abortion rights, including politics, economics, and culture. We parse these out into the structural and empowerment components of each, and posit a theory of rights in which empowerment factors are at least as important, if not more important, for explaining change than structural factors. To test this, we examine the impact of these components on the liberalization of abortion rights globally utilizing a distributed lag model. We find that an empowerment approach explains the liberalization of abortion laws better than a structural approach in terms of politics, but that a structural approach is a better predictor in terms of culture, and that both empowerment and structural factors are important predictors when economic factors are taken into account. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for understanding policy change and human rights on a global scale.

Hide All
Abramowitz Alan I. 1995. “It's Abortion, Stupid: Policy Voting in the 1992 Presidential Election.” Journal of Politics 57 (February): 176–86.
Adams Greg D. 1997. “Abortion: Evidence of an Issue Evolution.” American Journal of Political Science 41 (July): 718–37.
Alvarez R. Michael, and Brehm John. 1995. “American Ambivalence Towards Abortion Policy: Development of a Heteroskedastic Probit Model of Competing Values.” American Journal of Political Science 39 (November): 1055–82.
Asal Victor, and Pate Amy. 2005. “The Decline of Ethnic Political Discrimination 1990–2003.” In Peace and Conflict 2005: A Global Survey of Armed Conflicts, Self-Determination Movements, and Democracy, ed. Gurr Ted Robert and Marshall Monty. College Park, MD: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, 2838.
Banaszak Lee Ann. 1996. Why Movements Succeed or Fail. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Banaszak Lee Ann. 1998. “East-West Differences in German Abortion Opinion.” Public Opinion Quarterly 62 (Winter): 545–82.
Baxter Janeen, and Kane Emily W.. 1995. “Dependence and Independence: A Cross-National Analysis of Gender Inequality and Gender Attitudes.” Gender and Society 9 (April): 193215.
Boland Reed. 1993. “Abortion Law in Europe in 1991–1992.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 21 (Spring): 7293.
Buss Doris, and Herman Didi. 2003. Globalizing Family Values: The Christian Right in International Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Caraway Teri L. 2004. “Inclusion and Democratization.” Comparative Politics 36 (July): 443–60.
Chinn Jeff, and Truex Lise A.. 1996. “The Question of Citizenship in the Baltics.” Journal of Democracy 7 (January): 133–47.
Coleman Isobel. 2004. “The Payoff From Women's Rights.” Foreign Affairs 83 (May/June): 8095.
Cook Rebecca J., and Dickens Bernard M.. 2003. “Human Rights Dynamics of Abortion Law Reform.” Human Rights Quarterly 25 (May): 159.
Dahl Robert Alan. 1989. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Davenport Christian. 1999. “Human Rights and the Democratic Proposition.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 43 (February): 92117.
David Henry P., and Skilogianis. Joanna 1999. From Abortion to Contraception: A Resource to Public Policies and Reproductive Behavior in Central and Eastern Europe from 1917 to the Present. Westport, CT: Westport Press.
Davis Darren W., and Davenport Christian. 1999. “Assessing the Validity of the Postmaterialism Index.” American Political Science Review 93 (September): 649–64.
Division for the Advancement of Women. 2005. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women 2005 [cited August 1 2005]. Available from
Doorenspleet Renske. 2004. “The Structural Context of Recent Transitions to Democracy.” European Journal of Political Research 43 (May): 309–35.
Finnemore Martha, and Sikkink Kathryn. 1998. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization 52 (Autumn): 887917.
Flood Patrick J. 2002. “Abortion and the Right to Life in Post-Communist Eastern Europe and Russia.” East European Quarterly 36 (Summer): 191226.
Freedman Lynn P., and Isaacs Stephen L.. 1993. “Human Rights and Reproductive Choice.” Studies in Family Planning 24 (January/February): 1830.
Gurr Ted. R. 2000. People vs. States. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.
Htun Mala. 2003. Sex and the State: Abortion, Divorce, and the Family under Latin American Dictatorships and Democracies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Huntington Samuel. P. 1991. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Inglehart Ronald, and Norris Pippa. 2003a. Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Inglehart Ronald, and Norris Pippa. 2003b. “The True Clash of Civilizations.” Foreign Policy 62 (March/April): 6270.
Inglehart Ronald, Norris Pippa, and Welzel Christian. 2002. “Gender Equality and Democracy.” Comparative Sociology 321 (3/4): 321–46.
Inter-Parliamentary Union. 1995. “Women in Parliaments: 1945-1995.” Geneva, Switzerland: Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2004. Women's Suffrage: A World Chronology of the Recognition of Women's Rights to Vote and to Stand for Election. Inter-Parliamentary Union 2004 [cited 2004]. Available from
Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2005. Women in Parliament: Archived Data. Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2007 2005 [cited 2005]. Available from
Jelen Ted G., O'Donnell John, and Wilcox Clyde. 1993. “A Contextual Analysis of Catholicism and Abortion Attitudes in Western Europe.” Sociology of Religion 54 (Winter): 375–83.
Kenworthy Lane, and Malami Melissa 1999. “Gender Inequality in Political Representation: A Worldwide Comparative Analysis.” Social Forces 78 (September): 235–69.
Legge Jerome S. Jr. 1983a. “The Determinants of Attitudes Toward Abortion in the American Electorate.” Western Political Quarterly 36 (September): 479–90.
Legge Jerome S. Jr. 1983b. “Predictors of Abortion Attitudes in the Federal Republic of Germany.” Journal of Politics 45 (August): 759–66.
Lipset Seymour Martin. 1960. Political Man. New York: Doubleday.
Luker Kristin. 1984. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Markoff John. 2003. “Margins, Centers, and Democracy: The Paradigmatic History of Women's Suffrage.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 29 (Autumn): 85.
Marshall Monty G., and Jaggers Keith. 2004. POLITY IV Center for International Development and Conflict Management 2003 [cited September 1 2004 2004]. Available from
Marx Anthony W. 1996. “Race-Making and the Nation-State.” World Politics 48 (January): 180208.
Miller Barbara D. 2001. “Female-Selective Abortion in Asia: Patterns, Policies, and Debates.” American Anthropologist 103 (December): 1083–95.
Pillai Vijayan K., and Wang Guang-Zhen. 1999. “Women's Reproductive Rights and Social Equality in Developing Countries.” Social Science Journal 36 (October): 459–67.
Poe Steven C., Wendel-Blunt Dierdre, and Ho Karl. 1997. “Global Patterns in the Achievement of Women's Human Rights to Equality.” Human Rights Quarterly 19 (November): 813–35.
Population Division of the United Nations Secretariat. 2005. Abortion Policies: A Global Review. United Nations 2002 [cited March 15 2005]. Available from
Przeworski Adam, and Limongi Fernando. 1997. “Modernization: Theories and Facts.” World Politics 49 (January): 155–83.
Ramirez Francisco O., and McEneaney Elizabeth H. 1997. “From Women's Suffrage to Reproduction Rights? Cross-National Considerations.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 38 (June): 624.
Ramirez Francisco O., Soysal Yasemin, and Shanahan Suzanne. 1997. “The Changing Logic of Political Citizenship: Cross-National Acquisition of Women's Suffrage Rights.” American Sociological Review 62 (October): 735.
Renteln Alison Dundes. 1990. International Human Rights: Universalism Versus Relativism. Newbury Park, Sage
Sirokova Kremena, and Buresova Alexandra. 1993. “Abortion in Eastern Europe.” Journal of Gender Studies 2 (November): 311–14.
Steel Brent S., Warner Rebecca L., Stieber Blair, and Lovrich Nicholas P.. 1992. “Postmaterialist Values and Support for Feminism among Canadian and American Women and Men.” Western Political Quarterly 45 (June): 339–53.
The Population Division of the United Nations Secretariat. 2005. Abortion Policies: A Global Review. United Nations 2002 [cited March 15 2005]. Available from
Wilensky Harold L. 2002. Rich Democracies: Political Economy, Public Policy, and Performance. Berkeley: University of California Press.
World Bank. 2003. World Development Indicators 2003 (World Development Indicators). Washington, DC: World Bank Office of the Publisher.
Yamin Alicia Ely. 1996. “Defining Questions: Situating Issues of Power in the Formulation of a Right to Health under International Law.” Human Rights Quarterly 18 (May): 398438.
Yishai Yael. 1993. “Public Ideas and Public Policy: Abortion Politics in Four Democracies.” Comparative Politics 25 (January): 207–28.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Politics & Gender
  • ISSN: 1743-923X
  • EISSN: 1743-9248
  • URL: /core/journals/politics-and-gender
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 44 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 439 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.