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Abortion rights in Europe - 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?

Debate about reproductive rights in Europe has reignited due to moves to ban abortion in many U.S. states following the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.

By Emma Batha and Joanna Gill

LONDON - The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to throw out the constitutional right to abortion drew swift condemnation from key European leaders, but stark differences remain between countries in the region.

For decades the general trend in Europe has been towards liberalising laws and expanding access to abortion. Almost all countries allow terminations in the first trimester and often far later.

However, the Mediterranean island of Malta retains an outright abortion ban, Poland has outlawed it in almost all cases, and Hungary has recently tightened its law.

All eyes are now on Italy where Giorgia Meloni, a strong opponent of abortion, is set to become the next prime minister as the country lurches to the right following a snap election.

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With the world marking International Safe Abortion Day on Sept. 28, here is an overview of what is happening across Europe.

FRANCE - Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne has backed a parliamentary bill to add abortion rights to the country's constitution in a move triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

French President Emmanuel Macron was swift to denounce the U.S. ruling, calling abortion "a fundamental right for all women".

France legalised abortion in 1975, extending the 10-week limit to 12 weeks in 2001, and 14 weeks this year. In 1988, France became the first country to legalise the use of mifepristone, also called RU-486, as an abortion drug.

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

Two-thirds of gynecologists refuse to perform the procedure on moral grounds, according to health ministry data.

Giorgia Meloni, who is poised to become the country's new premier, has said she will not tamper with the law, but wants to encourage women to opt not to have an abortion.

Right-wing parties have already been trying to limit access in some regions they control, according to media reports.

The Catholic church teaches that abortion is murder, with Pope Francis comparing it to "hiring a hit man".         

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 sentences of up to three years in jail.

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 increased pressure from anti-abortion activists has led to fewer medics offering the procedure.

BELGIUM – When the country legalised abortion in 1990, King Baudouin, a devout Catholic who disagreed with abortion, abdicated for a day so the bill could pass without the need for his signature.

Abortion, which remained in the criminal code until 2018, is legal in Belgium up to 12 weeks after conception. As in many European countries, it is also allowed later if the woman's life is at risk or the foetus has a serious anomaly.

Events in the United States have reignited the debate around abortion in Belgium, with some politicians calling for it to be made a constitutional right.

POLAND - A 2020 court ruling which sharply limited Poland's already highly restrictive abortion laws spurred the country's biggest public protests in decades.

The ruling outlawed all abortion due to foetal defects, leaving it only permitted in cases of incest, rape or where the mother's health is at risk.

Many women travel to neighbouring countries for terminations, while others import abortion pills.

Several pregnant women have died after being denied emergency care since the law was tightened, according to The Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organisation.

Some women and rights groups are challenging Poland's abortion laws at the European Court of Human Rights. 

With Poland hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees, reproductive rights groups have also highlighted the barriers faced by Ukrainian women seeking to end pregnancies resulting from rape or for other reasons related to the war.

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

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.

The government wrote a new constitution in 2011 guaranteeing that the life of a foetus would be protected from conception, but did not outlaw abortion.

MALTA - Staunchly Catholic Malta is the only country in the European Union with a total abortion ban. The maximum penalty for women who break the law is three years in jail, and four years for doctors. 

The government announced a review of the ban in July following a case which provoked international outcry when a U.S. woman who started miscarrying while on holiday in Malta was refused an abortion.

Even though her pregnancy was no longer viable, doctors refused to end it because the foetus still had a heartbeat. The woman was eventually flown to Spain.

Surveys suggest most Maltese are still against abortion, but opponents of the law say the topic is becoming less taboo.

Reproductive health experts estimate 300 to 500 women in Malta seek abortions every year.

Many buy pills online while others travel overseas for terminations, mostly to Italy and Britain. 

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

UNITED KINGDOM - Abortion became legal in Great Britain in 1968, but not in Northern Ireland where the issue is more divisive.

Abortion is permitted at up to 24 weeks in England, Scotland and Wales, but there is no limit in cases where a woman's life is at risk or there is a fatal foetal abnormality.

Anti-abortion protesters have become bolder in recent years, targeting dozens of clinics. A few local authorities have set up "buffer zones" around clinics to protect staff and visitors from intimidation.

Abortion was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, but the regional government has failed to roll out a full service amid political disagreements, meaning some women continue to travel to Britain for terminations.

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

Up until then, its strict laws had forced about 3,000 women a year to travel 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, and later where the foetus has a terminal condition or the woman's health is at risk.

SAN MARINO - The microstate, which is surrounded by Italy, held a public referendum in 2021 in which the public voted overwhelmingly to end the country's total ban on abortion and legalise abortion on request. 

GIBRALTAR - The British Overseas Territory on the southern tip of Spain voted in 2021 to end its total ban on abortion which had carried a maximum life sentence.

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