According to Statista, in 2018 in the broader European area (thus including also Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) every country experienced 100 to 300 abortions per 1000 live births. Notably, only two countries have less than 100: Croatia (67) and Poland (3). In both these countries, the Catholic Church has been a prominent lobby group after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and conservative parties have long found in it an ally on reproductive rights and sexual education matters. Malta is the only EU country that bans all types of abortions, forcing people to go abroad to perform the procedure. Other countries, such as Italy, Hungary and Northern Ireland, though allowing various typologies of abortion, are still far from a complete freedom of choice.
The Maltese Criminal code states that ‘whosoever […] shall cause the miscarriage of any woman with child […] shall be liable to imprisonment […]. The same punishment shall be awarded against any woman who shall procure her own miscarriage […]’ (Title VIII, sub-title VII). In fact, abortion in Malta is banned. There are no provisions for an abortion procedure to be performed in case of foetal malformation and/or major illness that could result in the death of the child or in life-long disabilities; no provisions for pregnancies happening because of rape or incest; no provisions, still, for people who cannot afford to raise a child because of economic or social reasons; no provisions concerning the health of the mother. Thus, Maltese citizens who want to have an abortion face only two options: procure a miscarriage with pills (that are illegal in the Country, thus have to be purchased on the internet); travel abroad to Countries such like Germany, the UK and the Netherlands were abortions are legal. However, these travels are not cheap, and only people with a strong economic background can afford such a journey. Moreover, people seeking a procedure abroad usually avoid telling even their families where they are going and what for, for fear of being judged or excluded by family and friends. The pandemic has only worsened the situation: borders are closed, and help-lines are receiving phone calls asking for help to leave the country to get an abortion, often accompanied with a sentiment of despair and, not rarely, suicidal thoughts. With restrictions being lifted in July, these journeys will start to happen again. Human rights advocates are urging for a revision of the Criminal Code, but pro-life groups and the Prime Minister strongly against it, the battle for change is yet to be won.
Poland and Croatia
Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. According to Polish law, abortion is legal under certain circumstances: to safeguard the life and health of women; in case of foetal anomaly; if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Nonetheless, doctors can invoke ‘conscientious objection’ that is, health care providers can refuse to offer certain types of medical care if they do not agree with it, either for moral or religious reasons, even when those procedures are legal and necessary. Pills are not available in Poland, so those who seek an abortion have to purchase them on the internet. Pandemic has hit hard on the issue: for those who wants to keep their pregnancy and termination hidden from their family, lockdown has made it almost impossible to use the abortion pill at home. Also, travelling to neighbouring Germany or take a plane to the UK and Netherlands is not an option anymore. Kaja Godek, anti-abortion activist whose campaign ‘Stop Abortion’ was signed by more than 800.000 people and is now being studied by a parliamentary commission, said that ‘abortion is a pandemic much worse than coronavirus’. The Catholic Church, which played a crucial role in ending the communist regime, is a key ally in anti-abortion (and anti-sex education) propaganda. In times of Corona, when for pro-choice advocates is not completely possible to make their voices heard, protests were still held according to social distancing regulations (taking the ‘black umbrellas’ protests of 2016 back in malls’ parking lots) and windows were used as walls for manifestos.
In Croatia, the situation is not easier. Abortion is legal, up to the 10th week of pregnancy, as stated in a 1978 law. But doctors can claim the ‘conscientious objection’ clause, and from the 90s the number of abortions performed in clinics has dropped significantly (25.000 in 1993, less than 2.500 in 2017). Doctors say that this is a moral choice that they are allowed to take, and the Catholic Church is on the same page. Vigils are held in front of hospitals by anti-abortion religious groups, who claim to have stopped 50% of abortions from happening. In Croatia there are mandatory waiting periods for those who choose to have an abortion, and there is little or no information on the procedures to be found on the internet. Moreover, sexual education has been suspended from schools in 2013 due to conservative groups’ pressure. The goal of the conservative-held Parliament is one: fewer abortions, more babies. But the drop in official numbers doesn’t provide the full picture: those number only shoe the number of abortions performed in clinics, leaving out those performed at home with pills purchased from abroad, and those abortions that take place in other European countries. As for Poland and Malta, Croatians are also experiencing difficulties due to pandemic travel restrictions.
In the country, abortion falls under the guidelines provided by the 1992 Law on the protection of the fetus. According to the law, abortion is legal in Hungary up to the 18th week only in certain circumstances: is the life of the woman is in danger and in a severe crisis situation – which includes pregnancy as the result of a criminal act, foetus malformation which will cause either death or severe disabilities. Nonetheless, the same law at art.15 declares that ‘it is forbidden to encourage anyone to terminate her pregnancy or to propagate pregnancy termination by any method’. Art.9, which describes the procedure to follow for terminating a pregnancy, starts with the following: ‘[…] the staff member, with due respect for the pregnant woman’s feelings and dignity, and possibly in the presence of the fetus father, shall inform the pregnant woman […] with the aim of keeping the pregnancy […]’ of all the possibilities given by the state in terms of financial aid and support, or adoption procedures. If the woman wants to continue with the procedure, she has to be back for another appointment after the first counselling. Sign and countersign a document in which she declares her will and then come back for a third appointment during which the procedure will be performed, only after having confirmed once again her positive mind to it. The government is also sure that population decrease is caused by the high number of abortions in the country, though data do not show this with certainty. It is teenagers that mainly opt for termination, due to a lack of sexual education classes (though compulsory) and a certain taboo that is still strong among teachers and parents alike. Government seek solving this situation with anti-abortion campaigns, even if sexual education on contraceptive measures may provide a better outcome.
In Italy, abortion has been legal since 1978, when after years of campaigns and protests Law 194 was approved by Parliament. Though the Catholic Church and some conservative groups wanted to overthrow the decision by a referendum, the law is still valid today. Law 194 allows for abortion to be performed up until the 12th week of pregnancy, but this deadline can be postponed in case of a ‘therapeutic abortion’ if the foetus shows a severe illness which could lead to death or unliveable conditions. As in other countries, also Italian medical staff can call for ‘conscientious objection’. As per the latest data by the Ministry of Health, 68.4% of Italian gynaecologist are objectors. In the last 14 years, the percentage of medical professionals that declare to be objectors has risen by 10%. In some occasion, people seeking an abortion are forced to travel to another region because in the one they live in no doctor is available for performing the procedures. Abortive pill RU486 (mifepristone) is available for non-surgical abortion since 2009, but this procedure still needs to be performed in a clinic. Thus, only a small percentage of people choose the pill over the surgical procedure. Recently, the Umbria region decided to extend the period of hospitalization for chemical abortion from 1 to 3 days, with the approval of the Northern League party, the Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups. On the other hand, the region of Tuscany will soon allow this procedure without hospitalization. In 2019, the mayor of Verona, with the endorsement of far right and neo-fascist parties, the Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups, proclaimed the city pro-life. In the same year, the World Congress of Families held a meeting in the same city, protesting abortion, gender identity, same sex couples and the fall of the traditional family. The Council of Europe found in 2016 that in Italy people seeking to terminate a pregnancy still face ‘substantial difficulties in obtaining access to such services’ and that doctors that perform abortions ‘face […] disadvantages at work both direct and indirect’.
Throughout the report I tried to use the word ‘people’ and not ‘women’ purposely. June just gone by, we have to keep in mind that abortion is not a strong issue only for women, but for trans men as well. With the entire stigma surrounding the LGBTQI family, we often tend to forget that unwanted pregnancies happen in the transgender world as well. And in countries were being trans is still difficult and sometimes even prohibited, being a trans man and pregnant is an even more urgent matter. ‘Trans men are born with a uterus and ovaries, and the laws attempting to dictate how those body parts function affect them as well’. This is true not only in the US, but all over the world.
Now that the pandemic restrictions are slowly being lifted, people seeking for abortion would soon be able to obtain again such procedures. But during the COVID19 emergency, abortions were in same cases not deemed as a strictly necessary health care service, and resources were all shifted to fighting the virus. In April, Amnesty International, together with various human rights associations, asked the EU to ‘guarantee safe and timely access to abortion care during the Covid19 pandemic’, to safeguard in particular those target groups that are less likely to receive proper medical care also in non-emergency times. In Northern Ireland, people have to go to either the mainland or Ireland to perform an abortion, and not anyone has the financial possibilities to do so.
In a powerful article, Prune Antoine asks: ‘Did the passport-free Schengen area not apply to our wombs? […] If nation states can pool their currency or borders, then surely reproductive rights should be child’s play’.
If you are a woman or a trans man. If you are a man, or a trans woman. If you already have a family, or you are planning to have one in the future. If you don't want to have children, or if your biggest dream is to have a little football team running aroud. This battle is also yours, even if you think it doesn't affect you personally. Safe and legal abortion is a human right. It is not about feminism. It is about human justice.