Abortion rights in Europe - legal rollbacks and progress

Protesters hold banners during Abortion Rights Solidarity demonstration, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion, outside the U.S. embassy in London, Britain July 9, 2022.

Protesters hold banners during Abortion Rights Solidarity demonstration, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion, outside the U.S. embassy in London, Britain July 9, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

What’s the context?

As a European court says Poland breached the rights of a woman forced to seek an abortion abroad, here's a roundup of developments

Poland's treatment of a woman who had to travel abroad for an abortion due to a foetal anomaly breached her human rights, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Thursday.

The ECHR ruling said the woman had been deprived of "proper safeguards against arbitrariness", but did not comment directly on Poland's strict abortion law, which bans the procedure even in cases of foetal abnormalities.

Although the judgment was specific to the woman's case, a legal source said it could ultimately lead to broader changes in Poland - an outlier in Europe where the trend has been towards liberalising abortion laws.

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Abortion restrictions around the world
People demonstrate against Malta's abortion ban in Valletta, Malta, September 25, 2022. Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi
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A person holds a sign that reads: 'Abortion saved my life' in front of the Ministry of Health building during a protest, after a pregnant woman died in hospital in an incident campaigners say is the fault of Poland's laws on abortion, which are some of the most restrictive in Europe, in Warsaw, Poland June 14, 2023. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Go DeeperWill abortion laws be a game changer in Poland's election?

Numerous European leaders condemned last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn federal abortion rights, which has led to many states banning terminations.

Here is a snapshot of abortion laws in Europe.

POLAND - A 2020 ruling by the country's Constitutional Tribunal outlawed all terminations due to foetal defects, leading to a de facto abortion ban from early 2021. Terminations are only permitted in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother's life.

Poland's new liberal Prime Minister Donald Tusk - appointed this week - has vowed to present a bill allowing abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, although President Andrzej Duda may veto any such law.

FRANCE - President Emmanuel Macron has said the right to an abortion will be included in the constitution in 2024. Both houses of parliament have already approved the move which would make France the first county to enshrine the right in its constitution.

France legalised abortion in 1975, extending the 10-week limit to 12 weeks in 2001, and to 14 weeks last year. In 1988, it became the first country to legalise the use of mifepristone as an abortion drug.

The push to "constitutionalise" abortion was a direct response to the rollback of reproductive rights in the United States. Supporters say it would better protect women's rights as it is harder to change the constitution than the law.

UNITED KINGDOM - Abortion is permitted up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, but there is no limit in cases where a woman's life is at risk or there is a serious foetal abnormality.

A "pills-by-post" scheme - first introduced during the COVID-19 lockdown - allows women to end pregnancies at home at up to 10 weeks, but later abortions must be carried out in clinics.

The recent conviction of a woman who terminated a late-term pregnancy with pills has sparked calls from some politicians and women's rights campaigners to decriminalise abortion.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service says the number of women and girls facing police investigations under abortion laws has risen in recent years.

MALTA - The tiny Mediterranean island eased its blanket ban on abortion in June to allow terminations if a woman's life is in danger.

The government backed down on an earlier version of the bill that would have also allowed abortion when the mother's health was at serious risk. 

Anti-abortion campaigners in the staunchly Roman Catholic country said the definition of a health risk was too vague.

However, reproductive rights experts say the new law could delay emergency treatment and endanger lives

The move to amend the country's abortion ban followed the case of an American woman who started miscarrying while on holiday in Malta last year, but was refused a termination because the foetus still had a heartbeat.

She was eventually flown to Spain and is suing the Maltese government

Despite Malta's ban, hundreds of women seek abortions every year and buy pills online, or travel overseas.

Elsewhere in Europe, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra and the Faroe Islands also retain strict abortion laws.

ITALY - The mainly Roman Catholic country has allowed terminations within 90 days of conception since 1978, but accessing an abortion is another matter.

Two-thirds of gynaecologists refuse to perform the procedure on moral or religious grounds, according to Health Ministry data.

Italy's right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is anti-abortion, but has said she will not seek to change the law. She says she wants to provide women with alternatives.

SPAIN - Parliament approved legislation in February allowing girls aged 16 and 17 to have abortions without parental consent.

The new law also removed a mandatory three-day "reflection" period for women seeking terminations.

Spain's 2010 abortion reform allowed women to end unwanted pregnancies on demand within 14 weeks, or up to 22 weeks in cases of severe foetal abnormalities.

However, most women face problems accessing abortion services due to doctors refusing to perform the procedure.

The reforms also aim to boost the availability of abortion in public hospitals. 

GERMANY - Women can have an abortion until 12 weeks after conception, but must undergo counselling beforehand.

However, abortion remains in the criminal code in Germany and can technically lead to jail sentences of up to three years.

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

In 2021, the coalition government said it would look at decriminalising abortion, but changing the law could be difficult as the right to life is enshrined in the constitution.

Some reproductive rights experts say pressure from anti-abortion activists has led to fewer medics conducting the procedure.

HUNGARY - Abortion in the first 12 weeks has been legal since 1953, but Hungary tightened its rules last year. 

The new restriction is widely understood to mean that women seeking abortions will have to first listen to the foetal heartbeat.

Hungary is also among a dozen European countries that require women to undergo mandatory counselling before ending a pregnancy, a measure criticised by the World Health Organization.

Hungary adopted a new constitution in 2011 guaranteeing that the life of a foetus would be protected from the point of conception, but did not outlaw abortion.

IRELAND - The Catholic country lifted an almost total ban on abortion in 2019 following a landslide referendum in 2018.

Until then, about 3,000 women a year travelled to Britain for terminations.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight in 2012 when a woman who was miscarrying died from sepsis after doctors refused to end her pregnancy.

Abortion is now allowed up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and later where the foetus has a terminal condition, or the woman's health is at risk.

This article was updated on Dec. 14, 2023 to update the information on Poland, France and Britain.

(Reporting by Axelle Rescourio and Emma Batha; Editing by Jon Hemming)


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Protesters hold a banner reading 'abortion is a basic right' during a rally in support of abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, in Paris, France, July 2, 2022

Part of:

Abortion restrictions around the world

In the past year, from the United States to Poland, obstacles have been placed on abortion access as conservative lawmakers tighten restrictions on terminations - what is the state of abortion rights around the world?

Updated: March 17, 2023


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