Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > In Central & East Europe, Abortion Limits Being Imposed Against Public (...)

In Central & East Europe, Abortion Limits Being Imposed Against Public Opinion

Sunday 2 October 2022, by siawi3


In Central & East Europe, Abortion Limits Being Imposed Against Public Opinion

Wednesday 21 September 2022,

by Nicholas Watson & Claudia Ciobanu

In a Twitter space hosted by BIRN’s Reporting Democracy, experts warned civil society needs to organize against conservative-religious forces that are pushing through abortion restrictions with little public support.

Women’s rights activists condemned the moves by governments in Central Europe to restrict abortion rights, warning that the conservative-religious forces behind these moves are avoiding normal legislative routes in order to bypass public opinion which is markedly pro-choice.

In a Twitter space organised by BIRN, Edit Inotai, Reporting Democracy’s Budapest correspondent, relayed how the government of Viktor Orban (Hungary) suddenly announced an amendment to the current abortion legislation on September 12 that will require gynaecologists, obstetricians and other pre-natal healthcare providers from now on to present pregnant women with a foetus’s vital functions in a “clearly identifiable manner”.

“It was done via a decree from the Ministry of the Interior and practically out of the blue: there was no public consultation, nothing which preceded this amendment, and people are now wondering whether this is a small step in a bigger attack against reproductive rights in Hungary,” said Inotai.

She explained that behind the legalese lies a clear attempt by the nationalist-conservative government to slip through legislation that puts more pressure on women to refrain from terminating their pregnancies. Since 1992, the legislation allows for terminations to be carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy on medical or social grounds. In cases where the foetus is not viable, it can be performed at any point during the pregnancy.

A recent Ipsos poll found that in Hungary 70 per cent believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while only 14 per cent think abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.

Likewise in Poland, 66 per cent of respondents in 2020 said they favoured legal abortion in the first trimester, yet using the courts, rather than democratic majorities, conservative-religious forces managed to get the nationalist-populist government to amend the law to deliver a near-total ban on abortion that same year.

“As these illiberal governments came to power, they and the ultra-conservative and religious groups found each other as helpful allies… It’s not accidental that these kinds of governments offer political opportunities to ultra-conservative movements to open up further space for these legislative changes that they want despite even societal opposition,” said Claudia Ciobanu, Warsaw correspondent for Reporting Democracy.

Miroslava Germanova, a freelance journalist based in Bratislava, noted how in October 2020 a group of ultra-conservative MPs in Slovakia tried, but narrowly failed by only one vote, to impose new delays on women’s access to abortion by extending the current 48-hour mandatory waiting period to 96 hours.

“There are a lot of signs it might get worse – and do so very fast and very easily – in our countries, including Slovakia,” said Germanova. “We still have a legal abortion, but it’s quite restricted in some ways and there are a lot of attempts to restrict it even more. Since 2015, there have been as many as 15 attempts in parliament to limit the right to abortion in different ways!”

Masenjka Bacic, deputy editor of Croatian investigative portal Ostro, said that the tide of ultra-conservative forces threatening to swamp women’s and LGBT rights for years were eventually turned back by more moderate forces such as the centre-right Croatian Democratic Party (HDZ), in power today.

While in theory the law allows for unrestricted abortion up to 10 weeks, the legislation guiding the abortion regime dates from the early 20th century. In 2017, the Constitutional Court requested the government draft a new abortion law within two years to bring it up to date, yet the government is dragging its feet.

“It does not want to make it a major topic or be forced to choose between drafting a law that is more restrictive, as desired by the ultra-conservative Catholic groups and the church, and a modernised law that is supported by the general population,” Bacic said.

“In practice the situation is not so good: access should be undenied and abortion free, but almost two-thirds of doctors won’t perform abortions because they are conscientious objectors and almost no hospitals carry out medical abortions,” she added.

But there are brighter spots in the wider region outside of Central Europe. Andrijana Papic from the Macedonian NGO Hera, which was part of the protest movement against the attempt by the conservative VMRO government to impose similar measures as those that we are seeing today in Hungary, reflected on the sources of success of the pro-choice movement in her country:

“The civil society implemented successfully its strategy over six years, which consisted of the following pillars: building coalitions and alliances, within civil society and with political parties; researching public attitudes and seeing where the population stands, so as to develop messages that society would react to; using authoritative information; and planning political strategies that use opportunities provided by elections or other such key events.”

In Central Europe itself, Czechia still stands as a place where the right to abortion is free and unthreatened, which is why Polish women, for example, use it as a destination to still get the procedure.

“Several politicians have been very vocal about the fact that the Czech Republic will continue to have free access to abortion,” said Anna Koslerova, a Czech freelance journalist, describing the mood in her country despite all the worrying developments around. “Women have access to abortion until 12 weeks, and afterwards only with a medical indication.”

“The Czech Republic does seem to be a little bit of a safe haven for women from countries where abortion law is stricter and there seems to be no immediate risk of the situation changing.”