Europe: The Decline of the 'Right' to Abortion

The 'right to abortion' is on the decline in Europe and in the United States which explains the will of the French government to reaffirm it

Rome, (Zenit.org) Grégor Puppinck. | 1039 hits

Two million abortions are legally practiced each year in Europe. To this day, only a third of European States still prohibit abortion on demand. However, the proportion of States which pose conditions on abortion during the first weeks of gestation may increase.  In fact, in recent years, a growing number of European and American States are reopening the debate on abortion and revising their legislation in a restrictive sense. The Spanish Bill is an example, amongst others, to the point that we can now speak of a trend. This moves towards considering abortion more as a social problem than as a right or an individual freedom. In general, these new laws aim to reduce the legal time limit for abortion in order to better protect the child and to avoid abortions which lack a sufficiently serious motive. 

Apart from the symbolic case of Spain, where the Bill aims to remove abortion on demand, the British Parliament regularly considers the reduction of the legal time limit for abortion, with the support of the current Prime Minister[i], as in Norway[ii] which, at the beginning of January 2014, completely prohibited abortion after 22 weeks – the threshold of viability outside the womb as determined by the World Health Organisation. In Switzerland[iii], a public initiative referendum demanding an end to the public financing of abortion on demand was successfully introduced and the population will vote on it on 9th February. Currently, the Lithuanian Parliament[iv] is examining a Bill removing abortion on demand following the example of the Polish legislature. Supported by several political parties, it has already been approved in the parliamentary committee. The Latvian Parliament had, the previous year, reopened the issue, in particular in order to impose on women a systematic social interview prior to any abortion.  In Poland, the question as to further limiting abortion frequently arises: in 2011 the total prohibition of abortion was only five votes short of being adopted by the Parliament.[v] The same year, Hungary[vi] adopted a new Constitution which protects life from the moment of conception and has since implemented a policy in favour of welcoming life and adoption. This has achieved a reduction in the rate of abortion. Macedonia also adopted, on 10th June 2013, a new law strongly reinforcing the protection of life after 10 weeks.[vii]  Since 2011, the Russian government has embarked on a policy with the aim that abortion will no longer be used as a method of contraception. The Soviet regime had “normalised” this act so much that 4 million abortions were being performed annually. This figure was reduced to 1.3 million, which is equal to the number of annual births.[viii] As for Turkey[ix], in May 2012 its government announced plans to reduce the legal time limit for abortion from ten to six or four weeks.  However, this was abandoned following intense European pressure. 

This trend is even more pronounced in the United States where only 12% of the population still believes that abortion is morally acceptable[x]. Between 2010 and 2013, American states have adopted 205 new restrictions on abortion, more than during the previous decade[xi]. The change is as spectacular as it is profound.

This trend is also perceptible within the European institutions which have, until now, refused to create a European right to abortion. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe refused to set out such a right in July 2013[xii], while the European Commission regularly states that this question is not within its competence[xiii]. On 10th December 2013, the European Parliament rejected a resolution that wished to make abortion a fundamental right[xiv]. On the other hand, it has condemned sex-selective abortions and abortion policies such as exist in China. The Assembly[xv] and the Commissioner for Human Rights[xvi] of the Council of Europe have done the same. As for the European Court of Human Rights, it has always refused to create a right to abortion which would be legally binding upon member States, even though there have been many applications to that effect. The Court recognises that the unborn child exists, without necessarily being a legal person, and that it belongs to “the human species” and deserves protection as such. The Court adds that if States decide to legalise abortion then they must consider the rights of the different actors: the woman, the child and society. Similarly, the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg has recognised that the human embryo deserves the protection of the law due to respect for human dignity as it is a stage in the developmental process of the human being[xvii].

Both politically and legally, European law does not guarantee the right to an abortion, nor does international law which only guarantees the right to life for every human being and encourages States “to reduce the recourse to abortion”[xviii] which “must, as far as possible, be avoided”[xix].

The European Citizens’ Initiative “One of Us” is a sign that this trend enjoys the support of civil society. It has obtained the support of two million people, a number which has not been equalled to this day. It asks the European Union, through a mechanism of participative democracy, to no longer finance abortion and destructive embryonic research. The Commission and the European Parliament will make a decision regarding this request within the next few months.

This cultural evolution causes violent conflict because it goes against the dominant culture inherited from the 1960s. It is in this context that the will of the French government to normalise abortion and to make it a fundamental right of women can be understood. But this “right”, in order to exist and to last, implies that the embryo and the human foetus can be permanently ignored. Yet, the progress of science and consciousness working together, slowly but surely, has led to their better understanding of each other and, certainly, has also led to the recognition of their humanity.

Thus the “right to abortion” is in decline for two powerful reasons.  By reason of experience: liberal legislation is revealed to be unsatisfactory, and a theoretical reason: scientific progress prompts the pushing back of the frontier of humanity to before birth.  The decline of “the right to abortion” is more challenging for society than its advance because it demands that we be more human, responsible and united in order to recognise and welcome the lives of all.

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By Grégor Puppinck, PhD, is Director of the European Centre for Law and Justice

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[i] The Guardian, The abortion debate: the statistics, 8 October 2012.

[ii] Dagbladet.noAbort etter uke 22 blir forbudt, 2 January 2014.

[iii] A referendum, of public initiative on “Financing abortion is a private matter” will be voted on 9th February 2014.

[iv] « Lituanie : le Parlement va débattre de l'interdiction de l'avortement », LePoint.fr, 28 May 2013.

[v] http://www.astra.org.pl/repronews/83-polish-parliament-to-debate-two-draft-bills-regarding-access-to-abortion-today.html

[vi] Corentin Léotard « Une remise en cause du droit à l’avortement en Hongrie ? » HU-lala, 18 April 2011.

[vii] Planning Familial, « Le droit à l'avortement régresse en Macédoine », Le Courrier des Balkans

« Macédoine : le gouvernement s’attaque au droit à l’avortement ».

[viii] Svetlana Smetanina, La Russie d’Aujourd’hui, « Les femmes russes, championnes de l’avortement », 29 March 2013. 

[ix] « Turquie: une restriction de l'avortement? »Le Figaro, 30 May 2012.

[x] See the survey for the Huffington Post by Omnibus Poll in June 2013.

[xi] Guttmacher Institute, More State Abortion Restrictions Were Enacted in 2011–2013 Than in the Entire Previous Decade, 2 January 2014; S. Klift,States passed 205 abortion restrictions in three years. That’s totally unprecedented, The Washington Post, 3 January 2014.

[xii] Response by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, 3 July 2013 to the Written Question No. 633: “Does the European Convention on Human Rights set out a right to abortion?”

[xiii] See in particular the statement given by Commissioner Dali on 30 April 2012.

[xiv] Motion for a Resolution and Report no. 2013/2040(INI) on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, 3 December 2013.

[xv] PACE, Resolution 1829 (2011), 3 October 2011, Prenatal sex selection.

[xvi] Commissioner for Human Rights, Sex-selective abortions are discriminatory and should be banned, 15 January 2014.

[xvii] CJEU, Brüstle v. Greenpeace V, C-34/10. 18 October 2011.

[xviii] Programme of Action, § 8.25. Report of the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 5-13 September 1994, United Nations, New York, 1995. Available at the following address:http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/publications/2004/icpd_fre.pdf.

[xix] Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 1607 of 16 April 2008