Anti-Abortion Ideology is On the Rise in Europe

As the right-wing parties are on the rise in Europe, one can see a certain turn towards more conservative politics in all spheres of life—including reproductive rights.

To date, Europe has put forth some of the most pro-choice legislation in the world. In most European countries—with the exclusion on Poland, Malta, Northern Ireland and the Vatican—abortion is allowed, without restriction, for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and in some countries even longer than that. The procedure is usually carried out in a normal hospital—not a dedicated abortion clinic—and the shouting crowds with harrowing pictures are not as common a sight as they are in the United States.

At first glance, one might think that the issue has been put to rest—but this is not entirely true. The rise of conservative politics, complete with traditionalist views on so-called “family values,” means that the anti-abortion movement is having a comeback in Europe.

William Murphy / Creative Commons

The anti-abortion movement in Europe in many ways resembles what one sees in the U.S. The cornerstone of their ideology is the assumption that a human life begins at the moment of conception, not birth, and that a woman has a duty to become a mother. This is reflected in their vocabulary: they refuse to use words like “fetus” and talk of “unborn babies” instead.

Their zeal is almost religious—and many of them are affiliated with Europe’s churches. The most influential of them is the Catholic church, which was a driving force behind the harsh laws currently in place in Poland, Ireland and Malta. It was the Catholic priests that urged to ban abortion in their churches in Poland and the Catholic church that introduced the concept of “child conceived” to the popular mind.

This year, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland attempted to further restrict abortions—after a wave of protest on Oct. 3d, the restrictive bill was rejected by the Parliament, only to be replaced by a new one, which would ban abortion in the cases of severe foetal abnormalities. The turn back to this kind of conservative rhetoric is also visible in Hungary—where a constitutional amendment was passed in 2011 declaring the protection of a human life from the moment of conception.

Religion is also otherwise infused in the European anti-abortion movement, particularly in the dichotomy of the “innocence” of a baby versus the “sinfulness” of its parents. I experienced this attitude first-hand when interviewing anti-abortion activists in Russi who, when asked whether they condone abortion for rape victims, said that “the baby did not commit any crime, and should not be paying for the sins of its parents.” They view childbirth as a woman’s duty and an atonement for the “immoral” life she has led; when I asked about pregnant teenagers, another anti-abortion activist remarked that “if you did not raise your daughter properly, and now are going to become grandparents, you should, at least, let these plans come to fruition.” This approach fully coincides with the idealization of “traditional” white families with multiple children. (Another common trait among European anti-abortion activists is their racism.)

The European anti-abortion movement also shares an isolationist discourse with the far-right. It is particularly visible in Poland and Russia, where anti-choice leaders insinuate often that female empowerment is a toxic invention of the West that has nothing to do with the nation’s true identity. Just as nationalists advocate for the tightening of the borders as a means to go back to the old nation-state, the anti-choice movement tries to encourage their followers to have more children as a means of “saving the nation from extinction.” In Russia, nationalists and anti-choice extremists often share ties to the most conservative Orthodox communities that place constant reproduction into the center of their family ideology. They see childbirth as a woman’s most important virtue.

Despite active opposition, anti-abortion extremism in Europe remains. Across national lines, however, it remains clear: Pushing for the realization of women’s human rights will cut their movement to the core.

_20161214_204312Daria Sukharchuk is a journalist based in Berlin and writes about human rights in English and Russian.

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  1. There are some assumptions in the article which are not supported by facts.

    „that the anti-abortion movement is having a comeback in Europe.“ – the fundamentalist religious movement has never been away in Europe and therefore does not have a comeback. What we see in most parts of Europe is a historical continuum of the religious movement, although it is on a steep decline in most countries. Due to the reduced influence of the church in most European countries things have improved over years with the exception of Poland. However Poland has a specific history, quite different from most other European countries and especially very different from West-European countries. In fact Poland is the only country where things got worse in Europe concerning abortion. That step back was due to the influence of the former polish pope. He specifically requested the parliament do him a favor for his help to overcome communism and requested MPs to make abortion illegal. Surprisingly they fulfilled the pope’s wish in 1993.
    That brings me to the second wrong claim:
    “The anti-abortion movement in Europe in many ways resembles what one sees in the U.S.“
    The situation and the development over the last 1-2 decades in Europe has little if anything in common with the US. In the US many new restrictions have been introduced in the last years. None was newly introduced in Europe, but many restrictions were lifted. I am happy to send 3 slides summarizing and comparing the situation in Europe and the US.

    I don’t think it is helpful or empowering for our engagement if we continue to wrongly claim that things are getting worse everywhere. Instead it would not only correspond to facts but probably also be more constructive and effective to cite positive examples and trying to enact them everywhere. For example in 2015 France lifted the one week ‚waiting period‘ before woman could access an abortion. The main argument in the parliament was that this restriction was incompatible with human rights of women. Why do the parliaments in Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy or Portugal still patronize their women with that same restriction? Why don’t we challenge these governments to follow the French example and give women a free choice? Sadly enough that positive news was hardly reported by media outside France. – And we have numerous other positive examples which we could talk about and trying to enact.

    best regards
    Christian Fiala, MD, PhD
    Vienna, Austria

  2. A correction, abortion is not allowed, without restriction, for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in the Republic of Ireland either. Northern Ireland is part of the UK. It is nearly impossible to get an abortion in the Republic of Ireland, with 12 women travelling every day to the mainland UK to get an abortion. The picture in the article is from Dublin which is part of the Republic of Ireland. With a huge pro-choice movement gathering momentum in Ireland this article is missing a huge part of what’s happening with pro and anti choice movements in Europe by not including the Republic of Ireland.

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