Aborting in Europe: a threatened right? State of play in four European countries

16 March 2023 /

6 min

Abortion is a human right allowing women to interrupt any unwanted pregnancy. Over time, several women fought to acquire this right, and many are still fighting today. In Europe, while many countries did legalise it, many obstacles remain on the women’s path, some backlashes have been witnessed in the last decades. This article  will review the current situation in Poland, Hungary, Italy, and Germany. 

Poland, a near-total ban on abortion

Poland is one of the most restrictive-countries in what concerns  abortions rights right after Malta where there is a total-ban on abortion. 

In this very catholic country, abortion laws have traditionaly been quite restrictive for women, with an outbidding trend in the past few years. In fact, in October 22nd 2020, the Polish Constitutional court ruled that any “abortion on ground of severe irreversible foetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the foetus’ life” was unconstitutional. This is crucial since 90% of abortions performed in the country were legally performed based on this rationale. 

Nowadays in Poland, abortion is allowed in only two exhaustive situations: if there is some recognised danger for the mother’s health and life, or if the pregnancy is derived from a rape. which is something that in pratice has proven to be difficult. 

The constitutional ruling – which entered into force on January 27th, 2021 – led to a massive social movement in Poland, with big protestations in the cities, especially in the capital Warsaw. Women’s rights defenders claimed that this new ruling will seriously endanger women lives, since many doctors and medical professionals are too afraid to perform  abortions even though the pregnant woman’s life might be threatened, due to the repercussions that they may be subjected to. 

At the moment of the writing of this article, to abort, Polish women have two options: whether they go  to another country where abortion is legal, whether they import aborting pills. Nonetheless, the pills tend to be expensive, and consequently women with few resources cannot afford these solutions, turning towards extra-legal abortions. 

Hungary, insidious abortion limitation 

On September 12th 2022, the Hungarian nationalist government tightened the rules on abortion, making it a more complicated and bureaucratic process for women. The government created a procedure in which women will have to be subjected to hear or see any vital function of the foetus, mainly the heartbeat sound, during a mandatory echography in a “clearly and identifiable way”. Once this is done, they are allowed to launch the abortion procedure. All medical professionals, including obstetricians gynaecologists, must provide this medical exam as well as  to produce a report confirming it has been done. The decree entered into force on September 15th. However many people are sceptic regarding its efficiency and many doubt that it will change the mind of women who decided to have an  abortion. Nevertheless, many agree that this will create extra suffering for pregnant women.

Although abortion in Hungary is legal since the 1950’s, there has been many restrictions since then. In 2012, Orban’s government added a sentence in the Constitution stating that “every life must be protected from its conception”. Currently, there are only four cases under which abortion is allowed in Hungary: in case of pregnancy resulting from rape (but rare in practice), in case of risks to mother’s health coming from the pregnancy, in case of severe disability of the foetus, and in case of serious personal crisis. 

The actual government and its majority within the parliament are insidiously and progressively tightening abortion step-by-step in a roundabout way. For example, the morning-after pill is illegal, which prompts women  to consult a hard-reaching family planner counsellor to be allowed to abort, but they must take an appointment through a phone number available solely thirty minutes a day.

Italy, a road for termination full of obstacles

Even though abortion is legal for decades in Italy, in practice women face many difficulties to access to it, with  the preponderance of the Christian religion contributing to this scenario. Moreover, the recent election of Giorgia Meloni as head of government is not a reassurance to pro-choice partisans. If the Fratelli d’Italia leader officially denied any will to attack abortion right, in practice many questions can be raised concerning her party actions at the local level.

In fact, in Italy around 70% of doctors are opposed to abortion for so-called moral considerations, and in some regions and cities (even big ones) abortion can be impossible because of the lack of doctors willing to perform pregnancy terminations. The law 194 (1978) legalised  abortion but also allowed the doctors’ right  of conscientious objection. 

The aborting procedure  in Italy is full of obstacles: women must undergo a medical exam, then they must respect a seven-days waiting period and finally follow a counselling session which are often oriented to dissuade them to pursue their initiative. Several women complained about being subjected to psychological pressure and traumatised by anti-choice counsellors; some were even given money to pursue their pregnancy.

Furthermore, the situation worsens in regions led by centre-right and right-wing parties with  the Marche region as a significant example. In this region, women cannot have access to abortion pills even though its use is perfectly legal. Additionally, another practice which causes heavy psychological pain to women also persists with some radical groups picking-up the aborted foetus and organising burials in cemeteries, writing the mother’s name on the grave without her consent. 

Germany, putting aside a Nazi-era law

In June 2022, Germany was still applying a law on abortion dating from the Nazi period, that being the article 219a of the criminal code. This law notably prohibited any doctor to publicise or communicate about his abortion practices. In other words, gynaecologists happened to be condemned just to have mentioned it on their websites, like Kristina Hänel who was condemned to a €6000 fine. Technically, abortion is still illegal in Germany, but neither women or doctors are facing penalties for it. 

Altought the abortion process is still complicated in Germany since many rules are restricting it. The abortion must be proceeded during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. Women have the obligation to follow a counselling session (in state-approved establishments) three-days before the termination, though  getting an appointment is very difficult. This causes delay and can jeopardise the pregnant woman’s chance to abort. 

In more conservative and religious länders, abortion is even more difficult due to societal and peer pressure. In these regions, women encounter great difficulties to find a doctor willing to perform abortions. For example, many women living in Bavaria are choosing to abort in Berlin to escape the psychological pressure caused by fervent religious people animating the family planning meetings. 

Finally, it has to be noted that abortions are not reimbursed by the German Social Security, creating inequalities between women from different socio-economic classes. Since 2003, the number of abortions performed in Germany is in decline, which can be a worrying sign of women rights.  

These examples remind us that we should not take any rights for granted. Any big advances in Human Rights can always be followed by great backlashes. Nonetheless, women from all over the world are still fighting for abortion rights; Poland, Hungary, Italy and Germany being no exceptions.

This article was first published in the issue 37 of the magazine

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