With rights being restricted worldwide, Europe must push for universal reproductive freedom

With rights being restricted worldwide, Europe must push for universal reproductive freedom

Mar 8, 2023, 2:30:21 PM UTC
With reproductive rights under attack across the Atlantic, Europe must not waver on ensuring its citizens have access to vital healthcare.
Person holds a sign at an abortion rights protest. Sign says "Reasons women get abortions", there is a pie chart and the legend for the pie chart is blue: none of your business, orange: none of your business but in orange

A wave of retrogressive measures in the US threatens abortion access globally

The decision last year by the United States Supreme Court to overturn the landmark case Roe v. Wade, which had permitted pregnant people to obtain an abortion, was catastrophic for human rights. Not only did it mean that tens of millions of Americans (a large proportion of them women of colour) would no longer be able to obtain an abortion, it galvanised anti-abortion activists everywhere.

With reproductive rights under attack across the Atlantic, Europe must not waver on ensuring its citizens have access to vital healthcare. Our continent is not immune to regression, as we have seen in Poland in recent years. It is therefore essential that we act now to protect and expand our existing freedoms.

Where does Europe stand on abortion?

Across Europe as a whole, 42 countries have made abortion available on request or on broad social grounds. Within the EU, 24 EU countries allow abortion on request, while Finland allows abortion on social grounds.

In Malta, abortion is completely banned, while in Poland, abortion is only permitted when a patient’s health or life is at risk, or if the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence.

Time limits for abortion on request vary across the continent, ranging from as little as 10 weeks’ gestation in Portugal to 24 weeks in the Netherlands. The majority of European countries set the limit for abortion at around the end of the first trimester of pregnancy or 12 weeks.

Progress and retrogression

In recent years, Europe has made some, albeit slow, progress on extending reproductive rights. In 2018, the Republic of Ireland, long a bulwark of the Catholic anti-abortion movement, repealed an amendment to its Constitution to permit abortion up to 12 weeks.

Last year, the Spanish parliament passed legislation permitting girls aged 16 and 17 to undergo an abortion without parental consent, while France is currently attempting to enshrine the ‘freedom to terminate a pregnancy’ within its Constitution.

In the UK, the ‘pills by post’ service, which had been introduced at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and which allows pregnant people to safely self-induce a medical abortion at home, was made permanent.

Even in Malta, where abortion remains completely outlawed, there are signs of change. Following public outcry over the case of an American tourist who was refused a life-saving procedure under Malta’s existing draconian law, the government has proposed new legislation that would allow for abortions when the life or health of the pregnant person is in ‘grave jeopardy’. But Volt Malta’s Policy Lead, Matthias Portelli, does not believe that the government’s current plans go nearly far enough, noting that ‘any cosmetic change to the law won’t placate the movement for serious reform’. Volt’s Maltese chapter has been instrumental in pushing for the legalisation of abortion pills, as well as the removal of abortion from the country’s criminal code.

But such gains are fragile, and in some terrifying instances, we are moving backwards. In January 2021, abortion in Poland was banned except in cases of sexual violence or if the pregnant person’s life or health are at risk. Civil society has not taken these attacks on fundamental freedoms lying down, instead responding with waves of resistance, including the 2016 Black Protest and strike, and the October 2020 demonstrations which attracted 100,000 protesters in Warsaw alone. Volt Poland has been actively involved in these protests.

The case of Poland – ironically the first country in Europe ever to permit abortion – demonstrates how no right is apparently inviolable when political or religious interests take priority.

Access in theory, not in practice

Poland’s near-total ban on abortion is appalling and a clear violation of human rights. But other European countries aren’t exactly modelling best practice. Many place outmoded and unnecessary burdens on those seeking abortion care, making access more difficult than it should be.

In Germany, for instance, women are obliged to undergo counselling and to wait at least three days after consultation before receiving a procedure. Counselling and cooling-off periods may sound kindly meant, but they are paternalistic and reduce a person’s agency in controlling their own body. Counselling should be available but it should not be mandated by the state.

In other parts of Europe, it may be difficult to access healthcare altogether, because clinics are overbooked or inconveniently located, or because physicians do not offer this vital procedure. In Italy, it has been reported that as many as nine out of every ten gynaecologists refuse to perform an abortion.

What powers does the EU have?

In July 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a proposal to amend the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to include the right to an abortion. While the resolution should be welcomed – a gesture of parliamentary support for abortion is important – such an amendment is unlikely to take effect. 

First, amendments to the Charter of Fundamental Rights require unanimous agreement among Member States, something that is seemingly impossible given the position of Poland, Malta, Hungary and others. Second, abortion falls under the area of health policy, which is a Member State competence.

But this does not leave the EU entirely impotent. MEPs, including those in the Greens/EFA, have called for the rule of law conditionality regulation to be applied in the case of Poland. The regulation can be applied in cases where the European Commission determines that a breach in the rule of law threatens the EU’s financial interests. The result of such a breach can mean the withholding of key funds. Indeed, in December of last year, the Commission suspended €6.3bn in budgetary commitments to Hungary after the country failed to fully implement remedial measures. A similar approach could be taken in Poland.

However, with the war in Ukraine showing no signs of abating, the threat of withholding funds risks alienating Member States on the EU’s outer border and may be considered politically unwise.

Moving forward

Given that the role of the EU in this area is limited, we must turn our attention elsewhere to ensure the defence of reproductive rights. Specifically, we must:

  1. Put pressure on national governments to ensure access to abortion

Part of the undoing of rights in the US was the fact that the right to an abortion was never codified in the US Constitution. Instead, abortion access hung perilously on a legal precedent. In the fifty years that Roe stood, it was never considered politically expedient to formally protect women’s rights.

This is unacceptable. Political point-scoring should never be a justification for impairing the lives and futures of those in need. We must remind our elected officials of their responsibilities, while supporting political parties and movements that are unafraid to stand up for human rights. In its policy programme, Volt calls for abortion to be made ‘accessible for all women at least until the end of the first trimester’. 

Furthermore, in countries where needless barriers remain, we must call on governments to eliminate them. In Germany, the SPD-led coalition government recently repealed a law that forbade the ‘advertising’ of abortion services, which made finding a suitable doctor unnecessarily difficult.

Finally, we must demand that emergency contraception be made available without prescription, and that the costs of long-acting reversible contraceptives be covered by national health services or insurers.

  1. Support and defend reproductive rights organisations

Non-governmental organisations are key in the fight against systemic oppression. While it is vital that we pressure governments to reform outdated legal frameworks, we also need to support those working directly on the ground.

Abortion Support Network, for example, helps pregnant people in countries such as Ireland, Malta, Poland, Hungary, and latterly, Ukraine to obtain an abortion. Globally, Women on Web can provide abortion pills to those who are unable to acquire them in their home country. 

But as laws become more regressive, activists are taking ever greater risks. In 2021, Justyna Wydrzyńska, co-founder of the abortion support group, Abortion Dream Team (ADT), was charged under Polish law for providing pills to enable a woman in an abusive relationship to induce an abortion. She now faces up to three years in jail.

As Hillary Margolis of Human Rights Watch notes chillingly, ‘Tomorrow, anyone could be in Justyna Wydrzyńska’s place, and no one should have to risk being charged with a crime for helping women get essential healthcare.’

  1. Vocally support the right to an abortion

Finally, how we talk about abortion needs to be more emphatic and less conciliatory. Abortion is healthcare – suggesting anything else risks playing into the hands of anti-abortionists.

By being inclusive – considering the intersections of gender, sexuality, ethnic background and socio-economic status – we are more likely to ensure that all those who need abortion care can access it in a timely and dignified manner.

At this point in history, Europe must engage progressively on reproductive freedoms. As we have seen in the US and Poland, a right that many took for granted can be eradicated with the fall of a gavel, especially when we don’t actively seek to consolidate it.

This article is authored by Kate Fistric.