Taking Stock of Abortion Laws Across Europe

Anna Wilkowska-Landowska

A new Council of Europe report reiterates what we already know - availability of legal abortion reduces the rate of unsafe abortion.

After almost two years of discussions between member states’ representatives, the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men of the Council of Europe have prepared a report entitled "Access to safe and legal abortion in Europe."

The report confirms what is
already known, that the situation in Europe regarding abortion is very
diverse. Abortion is legal in the vast majority
of the Council of Europe member states. In most of the Council of Europe
member states (except
Andorra and Malta), the law permits abortion in order to save women’s
life. Abortion on request is – in
theory – available in all Council of Europe member states, but not in
Andorra, Ireland, Malta, Monaco and

According to information provided
by the International
Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF),
abortion rates are generally
on the decline in Europe, particularly in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (based on data
from World
Health Organization Regional Office for Europe

in the European region the number of abortions per 1000 live births
was 412.33 in 2005 and 391.56 in 2006; and in the Commonwealth of Independent
States – the number of abortions per 1000 live births equaled 603.87
in 2005 and 557.3 in 2006). In the European Union, the figures remain
rather stable (the number of abortions per 1000 live births was 252.54
in 2005 and 246.4 in 2006).

Legislation varies considerably
from country to country in Europe, ranging  from complete liberalization
to abortion being available only in extreme circumstances, such as rape,
severe malformation of the fetus or if the woman’s life is at risk. Abortion is generally available without restriction as to reason up to the 12th
week and up to 18 weeks in Sweden.  It is legal up to 22 weeks in most of the Caucasian
countries for social or medical reasons; up to 24 weeks in the Netherlands
and the United Kingdom in the event of social, medical or economic constraints.  It is available
only under certain conditions in Cyprus, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal
(the situation is, however, changing in Portugal, where a referendum
was held in February 2007, and resulted in a liberalized abortion legislation)
and Spain.  Abortion is available only if the mother’s life is in danger in Ireland and Northern
Ireland and not at all in Malta.

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Where access to abortion is
so heavily restricted, it frequently results in women having to risk
unsafe, illegal abortions, or facing financial difficulties resulting
from the only available alternative: travelling to a country where abortion
is available upon request. In other countries, although the abortion
law may not be heavily restrictive, in practice it is often subject
to limited interpretation. In Slovakia, many healthcare professionals
uphold "conscientious objection” and therefore refuse to perform
abortions. This should
never be a reason for refusing to refer a client for further help elsewhere.

The Committee on Equal Opportunities
for Women and Men declares in its report that the aim should be to avoid
abortions as much as possible. And the best way to avoid abortions is
to avoid unwanted pregnancies by offering accessible and affordable
contraception, and sex education for young adults (including in schools).
The availability of affordable contraception has lowered abortion rates
over the years, in particular in Central and Eastern Europe (in some
countries, e.g. the then Soviet Union, abortion was used instead of
contraception for decades).

Making methods of contraception available,
however, is not enough to prevent abortions. It is also important to
enable women to choose a suitable contraception of their own choice.

In order to avoid unwanted pregnancies, banning abortions is not be a solution. Women facing unintended pregnancy can only sometimes be persuaded to have a child, but most of them will
try to have an abortion even if abortion is illegal in their country.
Some will travel to other countries. The European
Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development
indicates that, according to the statistics
of the Irish
Family Planning Association
in the year 2006, 5042 Irish women went to Britain for an abortion.
In Poland, where underground private abortion services are robust, as
is "abortion tourism," women travel to neighboring countries, including
Austria, Belarus, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, the
Netherlands, the Russian Federation, Slovakia and Ukraine, to have an
abortion. But those who cannot afford to travel will resort to unsafe "backstreet" abortions or will even try to
terminate their pregnancies themselves, at great risk to their health
and even life (according to European Parliamentary Forum on Population
and Development, the estimated number of unsafe abortions in Europe
varies from 500,000 to 800,000 annually).

Restrictive legislation may
also lead to the development of an "abortion underground." Some NGOs
in Poland, where abortion is allowed only in the event of rape, incest
or danger to the life or health of the mother, have complained about
both women’s limited access to abortion – the judgment of the European
Court of Human Rights in the case of Tysiąc v. Poland  confirmed that an ultimate decision on whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term
has to be a matter for the woman, and that women’s right to control
their own bodies must be recognized (see Even Legal Abortion
Is Hard to Access in Poland
These associations estimate that some 180,000 clandestine abortions
are carried out in Poland every year.

It is often argued that giving
women the legal right to abortion will only increase the number of abortions. But in fact, legal restrictions do not contribute
at all to reduction of abortion rates and, rather the opposite, very
often lead to increasing numbers of unsafe abortions. For example, the
Netherlands and Belgium are among those countries in Europe with the
lowest abortion rates in Europe – no wonder, as these countries have
abortion legislation and services best developed. But unfortunately
this is not the case for the whole of the European Union, and also many
countries outside the EU.

Therefore, the report states
that member states of the Council of Europe should be invited to: first
of all decriminalize abortion, if they have not already done so; guarantee
women’s effective exercise of their right to abortion; allow women freedom
of choice and offer the conditions of a free choice; lift restrictions
which hinder, de jure or de facto, access to safe abortion, and in particular
take the necessary steps to create the appropriate conditions for health,
medical and psychological care and offer suitable financial cover; ensure
that women have access to contraception at a reasonable cost, of a suitable
nature for them, and chosen by them; introduce compulsory sex education
for young people (in schools), so as to avoid as many unwanted pregnancies
(and therefore abortions) as possible.

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