Europe’s Abortion Landscape: Evolving or Devolving?

Taida Nando for Distilled Post

Europe’s abortion landscape has long been the subject of intense debate in recent years. This has raised profound questions about women’s reproductive rights, healthcare accessibility, and the legal frameworks in place. Moreover, recent developments in the United States (the overturning of Roe v. Wade) highlight the vulnerability of women's reproductive rights worldwide. 

The varied abortion laws across Europe 

During the first trimester, most European Union nations provide abortions on demand; however, access is restricted as pregnancy progresses. Almost all countries have also ensured that abortion is legal throughout pregnancy when necessary to protect a pregnant woman's health or life. 

In total, thirty-nine European countries have legalised abortion on request, with two on broad social grounds, and six not allowing abortion on either of these grounds. Abortions on request (e.g., in Belgium and France) give pregnant women exclusive control over continuing or terminating pregnancies. 

Broad social grounds, as seen in Finland and the United Kingdom, require women to express distress regarding their pregnancies. What is damning, however, is that in many countries with broad social grounds, the laws do not include an additional explicit ground for abortion in situations of sexual assault. 

In this context, it might seem reasonable to assume that European countries have embraced the inclusion of minorities and marginalised groups within their legal frameworks. Ireland garnered international attention in 2015 when it became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote. This landmark decision served as a testament to the increasing acknowledgement of individual rights and the pursuit of inclusivity. 

Access barriers

Despite these evolving legal provisions, significant barriers limiting access to abortion services continue to exist. Legal availability doesn't guarantee access. Hurdles such as mandatory counselling and limited willing doctors restrict abortion's availability. Such measures violate the principle of non-retrogression under International human rights law. 

Despite progress, Europe continues to face attempts to roll back legal protections for women's abortion access. Monaco and Poland only allow them when a woman’s life or health is at risk. In such instances, abortion is only permitted if the pregnancy resulted from sexual assault or if there is a severe foetal anomaly. 

The problem is aggravated by a shortage of healthcare providers. Additionally, mandatory counselling with predetermined agendas causes delays and undermines women's autonomy. Simply put, these barriers prevent access to abortion care that is essential and timely. 

Alongside this, some countries impose waiting periods, making it more challenging for women to access timely care. These countries include Albania, Hungary, and Spain. When we factor in the shortage of trained medical professionals willing to provide abortion services, it creates an even more significant access gap. 

The power of protest 

Opposition to restrictive abortion laws is not a novel occurrence in Europe. Nonetheless, it remains remarkable that such restrictions persist in this progressive landscape. 

In June, abortion rights supporters marched through several cities in Poland, after the death of a 33-year-old named Dorota. Her family believed she could have survived if she had been offered a termination. 

The restrictive abortion laws in Poland, combined with reports of maternal deaths, sparked worldwide protests. As protesters flooded the streets of Warsaw, they chanted "Stop killing us" and "We demand doctors, not missionaries" on their march towards the health ministry headquarters. The support was impressive, with protests sprouting up in 80 cities. "We've had enough ...we protested when we found out about the death of Izabela almost two years ago and at the time we shouted, 'not one more,'" Agnieszka Czerederecka, a founder of the Women's Strike movement in Warsaw, told Reuters. 

Similar movements have also emerged in other European countries. In Madrid, protesters rallied under the powerful slogan of ‘Our bodies, our rights’, demanding access to safe and legal abortion. Meanwhile, in France, debates took place last year among senators looking to enshrine the right to abortions in the French constitution. 

Grassroots movements have also made their mark. In Malta, Doctors for Choice demanded a change to safeguard the lives of mothers at risk. The call was in response to comments made by President Goerge Vella about abortion in a 2019 interview. 

Malta's recent parliamentary votes in favour of legislative amendments have allowed abortion when a woman's life is endangered. This transformation can be credited to the impactful protests that have reshaped Europe's abortion landscape. Despite lagging behind other European countries, the legislation is moving towards the right direction. 

The way forward 

During this discussion, it is vital to recognise that many European countries have effectively prioritised women's reproductive rights, setting examples of success. The first and critical step is to update sexual education throughout Europe, ensure easy access to contraception, and establish robust support services. 

Though implementing these changes may prove challenging, they are necessary.