Abortion rights in Europe – rollbacks and progress

Moves to ban abortion in many US states have reignited the debate on reproductive rights in Europe

By Emma Batha and Joanna Gil

LONDON, September 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn constitutional abortion rights was swiftly condemned by European leaders, but major differences remain between countries in the region.

For decades, the general trend in Europe has been to liberalize laws and expand access to abortion. Almost all countries allow abortions in the first trimester and often much later.

However, the Mediterranean island of Malta maintains an absolute ban on abortion, Poland has banned it in almost all cases, and Hungary recently tightened its law.

All eyes are now on Italy, where Giorgia Meloni, a vocal opponent of abortion, is set to become the next prime minister as the country slides to the right after snap general elections.

The world celebrates International Safe Abortion Day on September 9th. 28, here is an overview of what is happening across Europe.

FRANCE – Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne has backed a parliamentary bill to add abortion rights to the country’s constitution, a move prompted by the US Supreme Court ruling.

French President Emmanuel Macron immediately condemned the US ruling, calling abortion “a fundamental right for all women”.

France legalized abortion in 1975, extending the 10-week limit to 12 weeks in 2001 and 14 weeks this year. In 1988, France became the first country to legalize the use of mifepristone, also known as RU-486, as an abortion drug.

ITALY – The Roman Catholic country has allowed abortions within 90 days of conception since 1978, but access to an abortion is another matter.

According to the Ministry of Health, two-thirds of gynecologists reject the procedure for moral reasons.

Giorgia Meloni, who is poised to become the country’s new prime minister, has said she will not tamper with the law but wants to encourage women to choose not to have an abortion.

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According to media reports, right-wing parties have already tried to restrict access in some regions they control.

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is murder, and Pope Francis likens it to “hiring a killer.”

GERMANY – Women can have an abortion up to 12 weeks after conception, but must seek advice beforehand.

However, abortion remains in the German Criminal Code and can technically lead to imprisonment of up to three years.

In June, Germany scrapped a Nazi-era law that banned doctors from providing information about abortions.

In 2021, the coalition government said it would consider decriminalizing abortion, but changing the law could be difficult as the right to life is enshrined in the constitution. https://www.safeabortionwomensright.org/news/germany-new-coalition-government-publishes-far-reaching-srhr-and-abortion-commitments/

Some reproductive rights experts say increased pressure from anti-abortion advocates has led to fewer medical professionals offering the procedure.

BELGIUM – When the country legalized abortion in 1990, King Baudouin, a devout Catholic who opposed abortion, abdicated for a day to allow the law to pass without his signature.

Abortion, which was part of the penal code until 2018, is legal in Belgium for up to 12 weeks after conception. As in many European countries, it is also allowed later, when the life of the woman is in danger or the fetus has a serious anomaly.

Events in the United States have reignited the debate about abortion in Belgium, with some politicians calling for it to be made a constitutional right.

POLAND – A 2020 court ruling severely restricting Poland’s already very restrictive abortion laws sparked the country’s biggest public protests in decades.

The ruling banned all abortions for fetal defects, leaving them permissible only in cases of incest, rape, or when the mother’s health was endangered.

Many women travel to neighboring countries for abortions, while others import abortion pills.

Several pregnant women have died after being denied emergency care since the law was tightened, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy group.

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Some women’s and human rights groups challenged Poland’s abortion laws before the European Court of Human Rights. https://reproductiverights.org/regression-abortion-access-harms-women-poland/

As Poland hosts millions of Ukrainian refugees, reproductive rights groups have also highlighted the obstacles faced by Ukrainian women attempting to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or other war-related reasons.

HUNGARY – Abortion for the first 12 weeks has been legal since 1953, but Hungary tightened its rules in September.

The new restriction is widely understood to mean that women who want an abortion must first listen to the fetus’s heartbeat.

Hungary is also among a dozen European countries Committing women to counseling before terminating a pregnancy, a measure criticized by the world health organization.

The government wrote a new constitution in 2011 that guaranteed the life of a fetus would be protected from conception but did not ban abortion.

MALTA – Strictly Catholic Malta is the only country in the European Union with a total ban on abortion. The maximum sentence for women breaking the law is three years in prison, for doctors four years. https://justice.gov.mt/en/pcac/Documents/Criminal%20code.pdf

The government announced a review of the ban in July after a case that sparked international outrage when a US woman who miscarried while on holiday in Malta was denied an abortion.

Although her pregnancy was no longer viable, doctors refused to terminate it because the fetus still had a heartbeat. The woman was eventually flown to Spain.

Polls suggest most Maltese are still opposed to abortion, but opponents of the law say the subject is becoming less taboo.

Reproductive health experts estimate that 300 to 500 women in Malta have an abortion every year. Many buy pills online while others travel abroad for abortions, mainly to Italy and the UK. https://news.trust.org/item/20210512165049-25t42/

Strict abortion laws also apply in other European countries, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra and the Faroe Islands.

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UNITED KINGDOM – Abortion became legal in Britain in 1968, but not in Northern Ireland, where the issue is more controversial.

In England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is permitted up to 24 weeks, but there is no limit in cases where a woman’s life is in danger or there is a fatal fetal abnormality.

Anti-abortion protesters have grown bolder in recent years, targeting dozens of clinics. Some local authorities have set up “buffer zones” around clinics to protect staff and visitors from intimidation.

Abortion was not decriminalized in Northern Ireland until 2019, but the regional government has failed to provide a comprehensive service amid political disagreements, meaning some women continue to travel to the UK for abortions.

IRELAND – The Catholic country lifted a near-total abortion ban in 2019 after a landslide referendum on the issue in 2018.

By then, his strict laws were forcing about 3,000 women a year to travel to Britain for abortions.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight in 2012 when a woman who miscarried died of sepsis after doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy.

Abortion is now allowed up to 12 weeks, and later if the fetus has an incurable condition or the woman’s health is at risk.

SAN MARINO – The microstate ringed by Italy held a public referendum in 2021, in which the public voted overwhelmingly to overturn the country’s total ban on abortion and legalize abortion on request. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/san-marino-votes-legalise-abortion-historic-referendum-official-results-show-2021-09-26/

GIBRALTAR – The British Overseas Territory at the southern tip of Spain voted in 2021 to end its total ban on abortion, which carried a maximum sentence of life.

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