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regular-article-logo Thursday, 18 April 2024

As France guarantees right to abortion, other European countries look to expand access

Women can access abortion in more than 40 European nations from Portugal to Russia, with varying rules on how late in a pregnancy it is allowed

AP Paris Published 05.03.24, 03:01 PM
Representational image.

Representational image. Shutterstock

As France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee the right to abortion in its constitution, other Europeans look at the US rollback of abortion access and wonder: Could that happen here?

Abortion is broadly legal across Europe, and governments have been gradually expanding abortion rights, with some exceptions. Women can access abortion in more than 40 European nations from Portugal to Russia, with varying rules on how late in a pregnancy it is allowed. Abortion is banned or tightly restricted in Poland and a handful of tiny countries.

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"It may not be an issue today in France, where a majority of people support abortion. But those same people may one day vote for a far-right government, and what happened in the US can happen in Europe," said Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and specialist in French and American constitutional law. The inscription into France's constitution will "make it harder for abortion opponents of the future to challenge these rights."

Here is a look at recent developments on abortion rights in some European countries:

Poland

Poland — predominantly Catholic — bans abortion in almost all cases, with exceptions only when a woman's life or health is endangered or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. For years, abortion was allowed in the case of fetuses with congenital defects. That was struck down in 2020.

The restrictions have led to deaths, primarily of women later in their pregnancies who wanted to have a child. Women's rights activists say doctors in Poland now wait for a fetus with no chance of survival to die in the womb rather than perform an abortion. Several women in such cases developed sepsis and died.

Abortion is a hot topic under the new government. Many of those who elected Donald Tusk's government want an easing of the law, though there is resistance from conservatives in the coalition; politicians are debating whether it should be settled by a referendum.

Britain

In Britain, abortion was partly legalized by the 1967 Abortion Act, which allows abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy if two doctors approve. Later abortions are allowed in some circumstances, including danger to the mother's life.

But women who have abortions after 24 weeks in England and Wales can be prosecuted under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Last year a 45-year-old woman in England was sentenced to 28 months in prison for ordering abortion pills online to induce a miscarriage when she was 32 to 34 weeks pregnant. After an outcry, her sentence was reduced.

Lawmakers in Parliament are due to vote this month on whether to remove the relevant section of the 1861 law — though doctors who assist women ending pregnancies with late abortions could still be charged. Abortion is not as divisive an issue in the UK as in the US, and the change will likely garner enough cross-party support to pass.

Western Balkans

The former Communist-run Yugoslavia started expanding abortion rights in the 1950s and inscribed them in the 1974 Constitution, which said: "A person is free to decide on having children. This right can be limited only for the reasons of health protection."

After the federation split in bloody wars in the 1990s, its former republics kept old abortion laws.

In Serbia, the 2006 Constitution states that "everyone has the right to decide on childbirth." There have been calls for this to be revoked, but only from marginal groups.

Malta

Malta eased up on the strictest abortion law in the European Union last year, acting after an American tourist who miscarried had to be airlifted off the Mediterranean island nation to be treated.

The new Maltese legislation is still strict, saying a woman must be at risk of death to obtain an abortion, and then only after three specialists consent. If the risk of death is imminent, only one doctor's approval is necessary.

Until the new legislation, Malta had banned abortion for any reason, with laws making it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to have the procedure or up to four years to assist a woman in having one.

Italy and San Marino

Italy resisted Vatican pressure and guaranteed access to abortion starting in 1978, allowing women to terminate pregnancies upon request in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, or later if her health or life is endangered.

The 1978 law allows for medical personnel in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country to register as conscientious objectors, which in practice often greatly reduces women's access to the procedure or forces them to travel long distances to obtain one.

San Marino, a tiny country surrounded by Italy and one of the world's oldest republics, had been one of the last European states that still criminalized abortion in all circumstances until 2022, when it legalized the procedure in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Russia

Although abortion in Russia is legal and widely available, authorities have been actively seeking to restrict access to it as President Vladimir Putin champions "traditional values" in an effort to rally people around the flag and boost population growth.

Women in Russia can terminate a pregnancy until 12 weeks without condition, until 22 weeks in case of rape and at any stage for medical reasons.

Pressure on abortion rights increased after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Since 2023, seven Russian regions have passed laws punishing anyone found to "coerce" women into abortions.

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