…Access to abortion services across Europe is at best varied, at worst oppressive, misogynist and life-threatening. Abortion is in theory available in all of the EU member states except Andorra, Malta, Ireland and Poland. Yet the reality is often tempered by an absence of health facilities, lack of doctors willing to carry out abortions, repeated unnecessary medical consultations and lengthy waiting time for the procedure, all of which make access more difficult, or even impossible.
Abortion in Europe falls under health provision, which is left to member states and something that the EU does not wish to rule on. However, access to healthcare when complications arise from a termination without fear of prosecution of either the patient or the clinician is an issue of European human rights. Women surely enjoy the fundamental freedom to be free from fear, threat and coercion as they deal with the consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations?…
…Over the past 20 years countries across Europe have reversed, reinstated, liberalised and restricted abortions over and over again, often as a result of changes in government and religious influence, not as a result of scientific analysis.
Poland reinstated some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe in 1993, following the collapse of communism and the resurgence of the powers of the Catholic and Lutheran churches. As a result of this, Polish NGOs estimate some 200,000 women endure backstreet abortions every year.
Meanwhile, under the political radar of many, the government of Lithuania is now seeking to create one of the most restrictive bans in all Europe. This is a country where abortion laws have changed little since independence and which has one of the lowest abortion rates amongst the Baltic nations. But if socially conservative parties win the upcoming election as predicted, Lithuanian women's access to abortion will be limited to only the most extreme cases of threat to life, criminality or severe disability.
On the flip side, the centre-left Portuguese prime minister Jóse Sócrates has recently made moves to liberalise his country's abortion laws, which were previously some of the most restrictive in Europe. But this ruling is only dependent on his political status and could be reversed under a change in government.
Where governments legislate to legalise abortion, women's rights to it are protected under European law. In a test case in March last year, the European court of human rights ruled to oblige all 46 member states of the Council of Europe to ensure that abortions are available where they are legal. An almost blind single mother of three from Warsaw, Alicia Tysiac, was awarded damages by the Strasbourg-based court for being denied an abortion in 2000 when medical testimony said her pregnancy would seriously damage her failing eyesight.
But important and helpful though this ruling is, it only protects European women who live in countries where abortion is legal. It does not apply in member states where abortion is outlawed. Pressure needs to be put on rulers of those countries by the EU to end these discriminatory laws which, incidentally, drive abortion dangerously underground.
Previously, one of the best ways of putting pressure of EU member states' governments to change their laws on abortion was through the women's rights and gender equality committee of the European parliament, a committee on which I have sat since 2000. In 2002, this committee passed a report written by the Belgian Socialist MEP Anne Van Lancker, recommending that in order to safeguard women's health, abortion should be made legal, safe and accessible to all. It also called on member state governments to refrain from prosecuting women who have undergone illegal abortions.
Van Lancker produced a landmark report, which influenced many others, including the parliamentary assembly for the Council of Europe, which earlier this year recommended the decriminalisation of abortion across Europe.
However, the face of the European parliament women's committee changed in 2004 with the election of rightwing, Catholic MEP Anna Záborská to the chair of the committee. Now even small amendments calling for female prisoners to have the same access to abortions as their non-captive counterparts cannot get passed. Gone are the days when the women's committee could give active help to Women on Waves, the floating abortion ship which provides abortion services at sea to women from countries where abortion is not allowed.
…All the rightwing parties in the European parliament, including the UK Conservatives, voted against section 13 of the van Lancker report, which called for the decriminalisation of women who have illegal abortions. They effectively voted to allow women to suffer from prosecution on top of the suffering they may have endured in having an illegal abortion….