Abortion laws 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?

France votes to add abortion rights to constitution in what campaigners say is a world first

France has become the only country to explicitly guarantee the right to abortion in its constitution following a landmark vote by a special joint session of parliament.

The move was in direct response to a dramatic rollback of reproductive rights in the United States.

French lawmakers overwhelmingly backed the measure which hands women a "guaranteed freedom" to end an unwanted pregnancy up until 14 weeks.

In 2022, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling scrapped federal abortion rights. Many U.S. states have since banned terminations or restricted access.

Go DeeperAbortion restrictions around the world
People demonstrate against Malta's abortion ban in Valletta, Malta, September 25, 2022. Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi
Go DeeperWhy is Malta's move to ease total abortion ban so divisive?
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?

The general trend in Europe has been towards liberalising abortion laws, with most countries allowing terminations in the first 12-14 weeks of pregnancy.

But Poland and Malta remain outliers, banning abortion in almost all circumstances.

Here is a snapshot of abortion laws in Europe.

FRANCE - France has made abortion a constitutional right after lawmakers backed the move by 780 votes to 72 in a rare joint session of parliament.

"We're sending a message to all women: your body belongs to you and no one can decide for you," Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said ahead of the vote.

The slogan #MonCorpsMonChoix (#MyBodyMyChoice) was lit up on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The constitutional revision makes France the only country to offer explicit protection for ending a pregnancy in its basic law, according to media reports.

Polls suggest most French back the measure. Supporters say it will better protect women's rights as it is harder to change the constitution than the law.

France legalised abortion in 1975. In 1988, it became the first country to legalise mifepristone as an abortion drug.

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 if there is a threat to the mother's life.

The ruling has sparked mass protests.

Donald Tusk, Poland's newly appointed liberal prime minister, wants to allow abortion up to 12 weeks, but he will likely face significant opposition including from within his governing coalition.

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

Although the judgment was specific to one case, a legal source said it could ultimately lead to broader change.

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 - introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic - allows women to end pregnancies at home at up to 10 weeks, but later abortions must be carried out in clinics.

The conviction last year of a woman who terminated a late-term pregnancy with pills has sparked calls from some politicians and campaigners to fully 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 2023 to allow terminations if a woman's life is in danger.

But 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 in 2022, 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 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 the Health Ministry.

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 last year allowing girls aged 16 and 17 to have abortions without parental consent.

The 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.

Germany only scrapped a Nazi-era law banning doctors from providing information about abortions in 2022.

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 in 2022.

The restriction was widely understood to mean that women seeking abortions would 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 Tuesday March 5, 2024 at 09:54 GMT to reflect developments in France.

(Reporting by Emma Batha and Joanna Gill; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths, Jon Hemming and Helen Popper)

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