No evidence to support abortion landslide claims

X case legislation warnings about liberal European abortion trends are not backed up by data

X case legislation warnings about liberal European abortion trends are not backed up by data

Warnings that any attempt by the Oireachtas to place the Supreme Court decision in the X case on a statutory basis will open a landslide towards widespread abortion are without substantial evidence.

Such warnings are ever more frequent in the mass media. The evidence for these perspectives is far from clear. In the case of the 27 member states of the EU, it is certainly unclear as to whether a large proportion of them have moved to an ever more liberal abortion regime.

Historical frameworks


The legal termination of pregnancy in Europe has three broad historical frameworks. In the first group are those countries that legalised abortion in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly as a consequence of a strong women’s movement supported by lawyers and health professionals.

Countries in north and western Europe such as France, Sweden, Britain, Austria, Luxembourg, Denmark, Greece, Germany and Italy fall into this category. In the case of France, Simone Weil, a former teenage survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, as a minister legalised abortion in France in 1975 and went on to become the first elected president of the European Parliament. These countries were joined in the 1980s by the largely Catholic countries of Portugal and Spain, where the struggle for reproductive choice had encountered considerable opposition and in the case of Spain continues to do so. Abortion in these countries is generally permitted, not on demand but for a wide range of situations and conditions encountered by pregnant women and girls to 12 weeks’ gestation. Ireland and Malta remain the two EU countries where abortion is effectively illegal.

Berlin Wall

More interesting is the third group of 11 countries from central and eastern Europe and the Baltic region which joined the EU after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Abortion had been legalised in almost all 11 countries between 1950 and 1957: Lithuania in 1955, Latvia in 1936 and more completely in 1955, Bulgaria in 1956, Czech Republic and Slovakia (as Czechoslovakia) in a limited way in 1950 and with a wider law in 1956, Hungary in 1953 on very limited grounds which were widened in 1956, Estonia in 1955, Romania in 1957, Poland in 1956, Finland in 1950 and Slovenia ( former Yugoslavia) in 1977.

In many of these countries abortion was a substitute for the absence of modern contraception. As a consequence, many women were obliged to have three or four abortions to control their fertility.

The opening up of the countries to west European ideas, mass media, individualism, markets and medicine prompted extensive debate about reproductive rights.

One after another between 1986 and 1993, the central and eastern European and Baltic countries altered their laws to restrict abortion to specific conditions, circumstances and contingencies. In a short eight-year period 10 countries introduced new laws with specific gestational limits and some relatively narrow grounds for termination such as rape and incest only. The debate on abortion in these countries was joined by the re-emerging Catholic or Christian Orthodox institutions which were functioning openly for the first time in decades.

In the case of Romania, abortion had been legalised in 1957 but was somewhat restricted in 1966. Under the tyrannical regime of Ceausescu, abortion was severely restricted in the 1984-85 period as his regime adopted a pro-natalist policy which obliged women to procreate, monitored maternity hospitals, demanded explanations for lack of offspring, and filled up orphanages with children whom parents could not support.

The restrictions on abortion were eased in 1989 and amended again in 1996, but while abortion rates have fallen in many east European countries, this is not the case for Romania, where the practice of substituting abortion for contraception unfortunately lingers.

The situation in Europe is extremely fluid in relation to the legalities of abortion. Estonia narrowed rules for minors seeking an abortion in 2009 in the same year that France enlarged the scope of social security refunds for abortion. In 2011 Hungary inserted in its constitution a right to life of the foetus, but transposing it into law has been extremely problematic. This was not helped when the public authorities used EU funds to print posters of a foetus and were strongly reprimanded by the European Commission and criticised by some members of the European Parliament. In Poland a 2011 parliamentary proposal to overturn their abortion law was defeated by a margin of only five votes.

Changing laws

The changing laws and rules have generated a new European geography of abortion movement. Just as Irish women go to Britain seeking terminations, some Polish women travel to the Czech Republic; women from Germany sometimes go to the Netherlands and Spanish women go to France. National figures on abortion rates, such as those from the UK, are enlarged by women and girls moving into those countries specifically to terminate a pregnancy.

There is no inevitable landslide towards abortion regimes in Europe. That is the story the data tells us.

Dr PAULINE CONROYis a social policy analyst who has written on abortion since 1983. This article is part of a longer paper published by the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington