Abortion rights in Europe vary widely – and are increasingly restricted – POLITICO


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The aftermath of an explosive proposed US Supreme Court ruling that threatens to upend 50 years of abortion access is reverberating across Europe, where conservative activists have made their own effort to reduce rights.

Across the Atlantic, Europe is often perceived as a bastion of liberalism in terms of ease of access to abortion. But while the European Parliament last year declared access to safe abortion a human right, in practice access varies widely across Europe.

The majority of EU countries allow abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. Northern European countries, among the first to legalize abortion, are the most liberal in terms of access.

Sweden took the top spot in the European Atlas of Abortion Policies 2021 – a ranking compiled by abortion rights groups – allowing abortion up to the 18th week of pregnancy.

By contrast, countries in Eastern and Southern Europe fared less well. And it is here that some of the fiercest battles over access to abortion are fought.

Eastern Europe: the eye of the storm

Poland is the epicenter of the abortion debate in Europe after enacting a near-total ban in 2020, when a high court ruled that pregnancies could not be terminated due to fetal malformations. The decision left only rape or incest, or if the woman’s life is threatened, as exceptions.

The ban is a highly political issue: the court that issued the ruling is seen as close to the government of law and justice, and the ban has been promoted by influential Catholic groups inside the country.

But it also faced stiff opposition from within Poland, highlighting the divides between conservative rural areas and more liberal cities.

The death of a 30-year-old woman last year sparked waves of protests across Poland, as well as condemnation from the European Parliament, after a lawyer representing her family said a decision not to practice a potentially life-saving abortion was tied to the country’s rules.

The Eastern European country shows how the gains made by liberal activists are under threat. Poland first legalized abortion in 1932, allowing it for medical reasons as well as when the pregnancy resulted from a crime. And during communist rule, the country had a relatively permissive stance on allowing women to terminate their pregnancies.

But the restrictions have gradually tightened. And the rise of the populist Law and Justice government has led to a crackdown not only on abortion, but also on LGBTQ+ rights.

Other Eastern European countries have also tried to restrict access to abortion.

In neighboring Hungary, the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán, for example, has tied additional funds for hospitals to the condition that they do not perform abortions. Women there are required to have two mandatory counseling sessions before they can have an abortion. And in Slovakia, lawmakers from the ruling party have repeatedly tried to restrict access to abortion services, though they have been narrowly defeated each time so far.

Southern Europe: feeling the pressure

Malta has the strictest laws in the bloc: abortion is illegal under all circumstances in this predominantly Catholic country. However, women circumvent the country’s ban by ordering abortion pills online; others have to travel abroad to have an abortion.

Malta’s position on abortion took center stage earlier this year when the European Parliament elected centre-right MEP Roberta Metsola as President. Metsola has opposed several reports and resolutions calling for access to safe abortion care.

But even in countries where abortion is legal, women may face informal barriers to accessing abortion services.

In Italy, around 70% of the country’s gynecologists claim to be conscientious objectors. The situation makes it difficult for women to find quick access to safe abortions, with Human Rights Watch noting that some have had to travel abroad to access the care they need. Women face similar obstacles in Spain, where abortion is legal but some have to travel hundreds of miles to find a provider.

Mandatory waiting times between abortion consultations and the actual procedure—nominally put in place to prevent women from making hasty or ill-informed decisions—are another hurdle.

Belgium, for example, has a six-day waiting period, while Italy’s is seven days. The legislation rejected by Slovakia would have extended the country’s mandatory waiting period from 48 to 96 hours.

Northern Europe: a bastion for the right to abortion

There are positives for rights activists.

In Ireland, a large majority of voters in a 2018 referendum backed the repeal of the abortion ban. And earlier this year, the lower house of the Dutch parliament voted in favor of a bill abolishing the five-day waiting period.

According to IPSOS data, attitudes in the north of the continent are the most favorable to the right to abortion: in Sweden, 75% of respondents say they are in favor of women having the right to an abortion when they want it; 64% of Dutch people feel the same.

Things have also changed in Germany, where the abortion debate has focused on banning so-called abortion advertising. In January, the country’s justice minister, Marco Buschmann, announced that the coalition government was set to lift the ban, which meant doctors could face criminal charges if they published information. facts about abortions. Abortion is still technically illegal in Germany but permitted under certain conditions, such as abortion taking place within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and after the woman has received counseling.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced countries to overcome barriers – and find solutions – to women’s reproductive health care. Some of these changes may be persistent. In France, for example, women can terminate an early pregnancy at home using abortion pills after a telemedicine consultation. The UK has extended the use of home abortion pills until August 29.

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