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?

Polish activist Justyna Wydrzynska found guilty in landmark abortion pill case that has alarmed human rights groups

LONDON - A Polish court has convicted an activist of helping a woman obtain abortion pills following a landmark trial that human rights groups fear could set a dangerous precedent.

Justyna Wydrzynska was sentenced to eight months of community service in what activists said was the first prosecution of its kind in Europe.

Wydrzynska was charged with "helping with an abortion", a crime punishable up by to three years in prison.

Poland, which bans almost all abortion, is an outlier in Europe where most countries allow terminations in at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

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?
Protesters gather inside the South Carolina House as members debate a new near-total ban on abortion with no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest at the state legislature in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S. August 30, 2022. REUTERS/Sam Wolfe
Go DeeperRoe v Wade: Which US states are banning abortion?
A woman holds a placard during a protest against the verdict restricting abortion rights in Poland
Go DeeperPolish activists help Ukrainian refugees end pregnancies amid abortion bans

Numerous European leaders have condemned last year's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to gut the country's federal abortion rights, leading to a slew of U.S. states banning the procedure.

France has proposed enshrining abortion rights in its constitution in response to developments in the United States.

Here is a snapshot of abortion laws in Europe.

POLAND - A 2020 court ruling outlawed all terminations due to foetal defects, leaving the country with a de facto abortion ban

Terminations are only permitted in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother's life.

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.

Human rights groups are watching the case of three activists accused of organising mass protests which erupted after the 2020 ruling. The women could face up to eight years in prison.

Prosecutors have also indicted Polish lawmaker Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus after she held up a pro-abortion banner in a church during the demonstrations.

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

FRANCE - French President Emmanuel Macron has thrown his support behind moves to include the right to abortion in the country's constitution.

Both houses of the French parliament have already voted in favour of the proposal.

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

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

Macron has called abortion "a fundamental right for all women".

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

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

MALTA - Parliamentarians in the tiny Mediterranean country are scrutinising plans to ease a blanket ban on abortion.

But moves to allow terminations where a woman's life or health is at risk remain highly divisive, with thousands taking to the streets last year to protest against the bill.

Opponents, including the powerful Roman Catholic Church, fear it will open the door to full liberalisation.

Malta is the only EU country with a blanket ban. The maximum penalty for women who break the law is three years in jail, and four years for doctors.

The move to ease the law 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.

Despite the ban, hundreds of 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 - Parliament approved legislation in February allowing girls aged 16 and 17 to undergo abortions without parental consent.

The new law also removes 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 them.

The new law also aims to 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 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 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.

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 the point of 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.

Abortion was only decriminalised in Northern Ireland in 2019, but the regional government has failed to roll out a full service amid political disagreements.

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

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 March 14, 2022, to include updates to Poland, France and Spain.

Sources: Reuters, Center for Reproductive Rights

(Reporting by Emma Batha and Joanna Gill; Additional reporting by Axelle Rescourio in London; Editing by Helen Popper)

Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles

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


Gender equity
Government aid
Economic inclusion
Underground economies


An illustration photo shows the globe with a tree standing on top. On the left hand side, a red backed illustration shows barren trees and oil refinery towers. On the right hand side, a green backed illustration shows wind turbines and solar panels. A sound equaliser image crosses the screen to indicates audio.

Just Transition

The human stories behind the shift to a green economy

An illustration photo shows the globe with a tree standing on top. On the left hand side, a red backed illustration shows barren trees and oil refinery towers. On the right hand side, a green backed illustration shows wind turbines and solar panels. A sound equaliser image crosses the screen to indicates audio.

Get ‘Policy, honestly’ to learn how big decisions impact ordinary people.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.