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