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Abortion in Vanuatu is governed by the provisions of Section 117 of the Vanuatu Penal Code, Act No. 17 of 7 August 1981.  Under Section 117, the performance of abortions is generally illegal. A woman who intentionally procures her own miscarriage is subject to two years’ imprisonment, as is a person who intentionally procures the miscarriage of a woman. The Code, however, allows an abortion to be performed on health grounds.  Section 117 also provides that it shall be a defence to the charge of having committed the offence of abortion that the miscarriage procured constituted a termination of pregnancy for good medical reasons. The Code does not define what constitutes “good medical reasons”. 

Although the Code does not set a specific limit on the period during pregnancy when an abortion may be legally performed for good medical reasons, Section 113 of the Code implies that the period ends at 28 weeks.  Section 113 of the Code, which is entitled “killing unborn child”, provides that no person shall, when a woman is about to be delivered of a child, prevent the child from being born alive. Under English law, from which this section of the Code was derived, the term  “unborn child” was usually applied to unborn children of a minimum of 28 weeks’ gestation. Penalties range from 2 years for an abortion to life imprisonment for killing an unborn child. 

Although the Government does not have an overall population policy, family planning has been included in the health policies of Vanuatu since it attained independence in 1980. Currently, health and family planning services are organized at the district level and are free of charge.  The Family Planning Association of Vanuatu assists in the distribution of contraceptives to government centres and mission health centres. These government institutions are the only entities allowed to distribute contraceptives, with the exception of condoms, to the general population. Despite these efforts, however, the contraceptive prevalence rate is believed to be relatively low in Vanuatu.  Some of the obstacles to achieving greater acceptance of family planning in Vanuatu include a cultural preference for large families, a reluctance to discuss family planning, and service delivery problems to the 14 inhabited islands.  

By 1990, however, a resurgence of interest in family planning, combined with a number of health concerns, such as poor maternal health, led to the establishment of the Family Health Project. One of the objectives of the project is the improvement of family planning services by enhancing the quality of care; offering a wider range of family planning methods, including long-acting contraceptives; and facilitating access to family planning services, particularly in rural areas. 

Over the period 1970-2000, the total fertility rate declined from 6.5 children per woman to 4.3, but remains high. The current population growth rate also remains high at 2.4 per cent.