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?

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

LONDON - Plans by the tiny European country of Malta to ease its total ban on abortion prompted one of the island's biggest protests in years earlier this week, with crowds of placard-carrying demonstrators taking to the streets.

Staunchly Roman Catholic Malta is an outlier in Europe where almost all countries allow terminations in the first trimester of pregnancy, and often far later.

Numerous European leaders swiftly condemned June's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the country's constitutional right to abortion, which has already led to a slew of U.S. states banning the procedure.

Alarmed by the rollback in the United States, French lawmakers recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of a proposal to add abortion rights to their own constitution.

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But a few European countries are moving away from liberal abortion laws. Poland has outlawed abortion in almost all cases, and Hungary recently tightened its law.

Access to abortion can also be problematic in countries where it is legal because large numbers of doctors refuse to perform the procedure.

Here is a snapshot of abortion laws in Europe.

FRANCE - French parliamentarians backed a proposal in November to enshrine abortion rights in the constitution, with 337 voting in favour and 32 against.

However, the measure needs approval by the Senate, which rejected a similar bill in September.

Supporters of the proposal say it would protect women's existing rights as it is harder to change the constitution than the law.

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

President Emmanuel Macron was among those who denounced the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, calling abortion "a fundamental right for all women".

Polls show about 80% of the French population support the right to abortion.

ITALY - The 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 or religious grounds, according to health ministry data.

Italy's new right-wing leader, Giorgia Meloni, is anti-abortion, but has said she will not seek to change the law.

However, she has said she wants to provide women with alternatives to terminations.

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.

MALTA - 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.

But parliament is discussing a government proposal to ease the ban in cases where a woman's life or health is at risk.

The move follows international outcry over the case of an American woman who started miscarrying while on holiday in Malta and was refused treatment to end her pregnancy because the foetus still had a heartbeat.

The woman, who was eventually flown to Spain, is now suing the Maltese government.

Opponents of the proposed legal amendment, including the powerful Catholic Church, fear it will open the door to full liberalisation, an argument rejected by the ruling centre-left party.

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.

SPAIN - Spain approved a draft bill in May that would let 16 and 17-year-olds end a pregnancy without parental consent, and remove the current mandatory three-day reflection or waiting 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.

The new bill also seeks to address the lack of access to services in some areas arising from doctors refusing to carry out abortions.

The reforms envisage the creation of a register of conscientious objectors to help ensure all public hospitals have staff who can provide terminations.

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.

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.

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 serious 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.

This article was updated on Dec. 6, 2022, to include developments in France, Malta and Spain.

Sources: Reuters, Center for Reproductive Rights

(Reporting by Emma Batha and Joanna Gill; Editing by Helen Popper)


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