Abortion rights: An open wound in many European countries

It is estimated that around 100,000 Polish women travel abroad each year,  according to a statement by UN experts, often to neighbouring Germany or Czech Republic, where terminations are much easier to obtain. [Shutterstock/Magdalena kluczny]

Poland already had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, and is on the verge of tightening it even further. But a closer look at other European countries shows the trend does not go towards liberalisation either, while at EU level, the European Commission is legally unarmed.

The protest against a strict abortion ban in Poland continues and is now turning into an anti-government movement.

In a country where the overwhelming majority supports termination of pregnancies in case of foetal abnormalities, demonstrations were just a matter of time. However, the outrage is directed not only at the judges who cleared the law, but also at the ruling Law and Justice party that de facto controls the court.

The Polish Church, which was previously considered an inviolable authority, is also the target of mostly young demonstrators, some of them dressed as handmaids.

“It started with the abortion law as an incentive for expressing this anger,” said Klementyna Suchanow, co-founder of All-Polish Women’s Strike, the key force behind the protests

“But right now it’s about everything,” she told EURACTIV Poland.

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It is estimated that around 100,000 Polish women travel abroad each year to get an abortion, according to UN experts, often to neighbouring Germany or Czech Republic, where terminations are much easier to obtain.

At the same time, there is a gap between legal abortions taking place in a medical environment and so-called “clandestine or informal abortions”, which the UN estimates between 80,000 and 180,000 per year. The Polish government claims this number is fewer than 10,000.

In early November, members of the Polish Left wrote a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, requesting the EU executive to act on tightening the anti-abortion law in Poland. A similar letter was sent to Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli.

A Commission spokesperson confirmed to EURACTIV the letter had been received and a reply would be provided “in due course”.

Asked whether the restriction of abortion rights is in accordance with European values and EU fundamental rights, the Commission referred to the EU treaties. “From a legal perspective, let me remind that according to the treaties, the EU has no competence on abortion right and legislation in this area is up to member states,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson, however, recalled the words of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who said earlier this year that “strong women’s rights are an asset and an achievement for the whole of Europe”.

“Backsliding is not an option for a continent that aims for winning the future,” von der Leyen added, saying: “Progress is hard won, but easily lost”.

A look around Europe

Abortion laws vary greatly across the EU’s 27 member states, from a complete ban, to allowing it only under certain conditions, putting legal restrictions on it, or letting women freely choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Only Malta and a few micro-states like Andorra and San Marino currently have more restrictive abortion laws than Poland.

A woman who terminates her pregnancy in Malta risks a prison sentence of up to three years, even if she became pregnant by a rapist or if the pregnancy endangers her health or life. 98% of the country is Catholic and divorce was still illegal in the country until 2011.

Countries like Ireland and Cyprus have liberalised to allow abortion up to certain gestational limits.

Ireland, where the Catholic Church has a strong influence on the assessment of moral issues as well as on politics and legislation, had one of the strictest abortion bans in the EU, under which women could face sentences of up to fourteen years if they terminated a pregnancy.

A protracted debate in Ireland led to a public referendum on constitutional reform. That led to the rule’s abolition in 2018, paving way for a modernised legal framework for abortion rights in Ireland.

Public opinion was additionally heavily influenced by the damaged reputation of the Catholic Church due to cases of abuse and their handling of them.

Under the new rules, abortion in the country became legal if conducted within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After this period, abortion is permitted in cases where a women’s life or health is at risk or if is the possibility of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar described the vote as the culmination of a “quiet revolution” in the deeply Catholic country.

Further east, the debate is getting more polarised. Central and Eastern European countries in particular have seen multiple attempts to reduce women’s legal entitlements to abortion or to introduce new barriers.

Slovakia’s parliament earlier this month voted against proposed restrictions that would have required women to wait 96 hours before an abortion, banned clinics from “advertising” abortion services, and required women to justify their reasons for seeking an abortion.

It was one of several bills proposing restrictions on reproductive rights that were rejected in the country’s parliament in 2019 and 2020.

The Netherlands are among the most liberal Western European countries with a deadline of 24 weeks. After talking to a doctor, a woman only has to wait a five-day cooling-off period before being treated in a clinic.

Most EU countries allow abortion on demand up to 10 or 14 weeks of pregnancy, including France, Belgium, Denmark, and Greece. The deadlines are pushed out for cases of rape or foetal abnormality, but information dissemination or advertising by service providers is banned or regulated.

While Portugal has similar timelines, it has tightened its laws in other ways, requiring women to have counselling first and pay for the procedure.

According to Eurostat, more than half of the EU’s member states have experienced a gradual decline in abortions during the last decade.

In the case of the UK, France and Germany, which have the most abortions in absolute terms, figures have remained relatively stable, but reached 622,480 in 2018 only in these four countries, with France in the lead.

However, the liberalisation of abortion is being called into question again in many Catholic countries in Europe and the new restrictive Polish laws are a model for conservative parties in Slovakia, Italy, Spain or Croatia who want to reverse liberal deadline solutions.

Pro-life ‘Geneva Consensus’

Across the world, the pro-life movement seems to be gaining strength. According to the latest figures 26 countries around the world prohibit abortion altogether, including Congo-Brazzaville, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Madagascar, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Palau, Philippines, Senegal and Suriname.

In October, 32 countries signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration, a pledge to protect women and defend life.

The controversial document, co-sponsored by the US, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Hungary and Uganda, states that “there is no international right to abortion” while tackling the promotion of equal rights for women and the need for universal health coverage.

The other signatories were Bahrain, Belarus, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, Djibouti, Eswatini, Gambia, Haiti, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Libya, Nauru, Niger, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Zambia.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon. Samuel Stolton contributed to this article.)

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