Europe’s Abortion Laws: A Comparative Overview

08.23.2019

Primary Content

For more than 60 years Europe has led the continuing global trend towards the liberalization of abortion laws and the legalization of women’s access to safe and legal abortion. Today almost all European countries allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds and only a very small minority maintain highly restrictive laws prohibiting abortion in almost all circumstances. Similarly, a broad range of European countries continue to enact reforms to remove harmful procedural and regulatory barriers that often impede access to legal abortion.

Grounds for Legal Access to Abortion

European countries

41 European countries allow abortion on a woman’s request or broad social grounds.
6 European countries do not allow this.

The standard practice across Europe is to legalize abortion on request or broad social grounds, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy. In addition, abortion is also legal throughout pregnancy where necessary to protect a pregnant woman’s health or life.

European Union

26 out of 28 European Union member states allow abortion on a woman’s request or broad social grounds.
2 EU member states do not allow this.

In the European Union (EU) almost every country has legalized abortion on request or broad social grounds. Poland and Malta are the only EU member states that have not yet reformed their highly restrictive laws.

  • Abortion on request in the EU: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark1, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.
  • Abortion on broad social grounds in the EU: Finland and the United Kingdom.2

Across the European region as a whole, 41 of 47 countries have legalized abortion on request or broad social grounds. 39 of these countries have legalized abortion on request, either without restriction as to reason or for reasons of distress.

Abortion on request means that doctors or other professionals are not required to attest to, or certify, the existence of a particular reason or justification for the abortion. This means that the ultimate decision on whether to continue or end a pregnancy belongs to the pregnant woman. In a small number of European countries that allow abortion on request women may need to specify that they are in a state of distress about the pregnancy.

Remaining Highly Restrictive Laws

Only six European countries retain highly restrictive abortion laws and do not permit abortion on request or on broad social grounds. These are: Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Poland and San Marino.

  • Andorra, Malta and San Marino do not allow abortion at all.
  • Liechtenstein allows it only when a woman’s life or health is at risk or the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault.
  • Monaco and Poland allow it only when a woman’s life or health is at risk, the pregnancy is the result of sexual assault or involves a severe fetal anomaly.

The UK jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and Gibraltar and the Danish jurisdiction of the Faroe Islands also maintain highly restrictive laws.

Legal reform processes which may lead to the liberalization of laws in Monaco and the UK jurisdictions of Gibraltar and Northern Ireland are currently underway or slated for 2019–2020.

European countries

Time Limits

Some European countries’ laws set the time limit for abortion on request or broad social grounds between 18-24 weeks of pregnancy, whereas others set the limit around the first trimester of pregnancy. However, all these countries’ laws also allow access later in pregnancy in specific circumstances, such as where a woman’s health or life is at risk. The standard practice across Europe is to not impose time limits on these reason-based grounds.

A number of European countries have enacted reforms to extend the time limits for access to abortion on request or broad social grounds. These reforms recognize that although most abortions in Europe take place during the first trimester of pregnancy, short time limits can have harmful impacts on women who seek abortion care after the relevant time limit.

Remaining Access Barriers

A number of European countries that have legalized abortion on request or broad social grounds maintain a range of procedural and regulatory barriers that impede access to abortion care in practice. Some countries are taking steps to eradicate these barriers.

  • Criminalization: Some countries in Europe that have legalized abortion on request or broad social grounds nonetheless maintain specific criminal sanctions for abortions performed outside of the scope of applicable legal provisions. In a small number of countries laws still retain criminal penalties for women who obtain abortion care in contravention of legal rules. However more commonly laws specify that criminal sanctions, which can range from fines to prison sentences, apply to medical professionals or others who assist women to obtain illegal abortion care. Criminalizing abortion treats this form of medical care differently from any other health care and can cause significant harm to women’s health and wellbeing. It can delay or prevent access to post abortion care, intensify abortion stigma, heighten barriers in access to legal care and create a chilling effect on medical professionals’ provision of information and care.
  • Time limits: In some European countries short time limits for access to abortion on request can have harmful impacts on women and may impede them from obtaining the health care they need. When applied in a restrictive manner short time limits can be particularly harmful for adolescent girls and women belonging to marginalized communities who may not always be able to obtain care within the legal timeframe. This may result in women needing to travel to other jurisdictions to access legal abortion or accessing abortion care at home outside of the scope of the law and under threat of criminal prosecution.
  • Mandatory Waiting Periods for Abortion on Request: Laws in 16 European countries still require a mandatory time period to elapse between the date on which an abortion is first requested and the date on which it takes place.3 These waiting periods undermine access to timely and affordable care and restrict women’s human rights and autonomous decision-making. The WHO specifies that laws should not impose these medically unnecessary delays.
  • Mandatory Counseling: Laws in 13 European countries require women to undergo mandatory counselling or receive mandatory information from their doctors prior to abortion.4 In a number of these countries, such as Germany and Hungary, laws require biased and directive counselling deliberately intended to influence women’s decision-making and dissuade them from having an abortion. Mandatory counseling requirements undermine women’s human rights and are particularly harmful when they involve the provision of biased information. The WHO advises that counselling prior to abortion should never be mandatory and that provision of information about abortion should always be unbiased, non-directive and medically accurate.
  • Distress Requirements: In a small number of European countries that have legalized abortion on request, women are still required to explain that they are seeking an abortion because of their social or family circumstances or because continuing the pregnancy would cause them distress.5 Such rules stigmatize abortion, undermine autonomous decision-making and should be removed. In recent years France and Belgium adopted reforms to remove previously existing distress requirements.
  • Third Party Authorization Procedures: Some countries in Europe require prior permission from parents, guardians, doctors or official committees before women can access abortion care. In some instances, these procedures disproportionately impact adolescent girls, women with disabilities, women living in poverty and women belonging to marginalized communities. For example, parental consent requirements may often undermine the human rights of adolescent girls and may place them at risk.
  • Refusals of Care on Grounds of Conscience: In some European countries access to abortion care is undermined by government failures to appropriately address medical professionals’ refusals to provide abortion care on grounds of conscience or religion. For example, in Italy state authorities are failing to ensure that these refusals do not result in delays or denial of care for women seeking legal abortion care.

Regression and Backlash

Although the general trend has been one of progress towards liberalization, in recent years some countries in Europe have witnessed retrogressive attempts to roll back or restrict existing legal protections for women’s access to abortion.

  • In some countries they have involved attempts to completely ban abortion or to remove existing legal grounds for abortion. For example, Poland has witnessed repeated attempts to restrict its already highly restrictive law.
  • At times they have led to the introduction of new regressive preconditions that women must fulfil prior to obtaining abortion care—including undergoing mandatory biased counseling and observing mandatory waiting periods.
  • There have also been a number of court challenges contesting the constitutionality of women’s access to abortion and seeking to establish and expand medical professional’s entitlements to refuse to provide legal abortion care.

Measures that roll back or reduce women’s reproductive rights by introducing new barriers or removing or scaling back entitlements to abortion care violate the principle of non-retrogression under international human rights law.

Key

Explicit in law.
Explicitly prohibited or nothing specified in law.
Included under a ‘medical’ ground or health ground.

Country On Request6 Socio-economic Reasons Risk to Life Risk to Health Sexual Assault Mandatory Waiting Period7 Mandatory Counselling
Albania
Andorra
Armenia
Austria
Azerbaijan
Belgium
Bosnia & Herzegovina8
Bulgaria
Croatia
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Denmark9
Estonia
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iceland
Ireland
Italy
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Moldova
Monaco
Montenegro
Netherlands
North Macedonia
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania
Russian Federation
San Marino
Serbia
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom10
  • 1. The Danish jurisdiction of the Faroe Islands does not allow abortion on request. The Faroe Islands only permit abortion in situations of risk to health or life or severe fetal impairments, when the pregnancy results from sexual assault, or if the pregnant woman is unable to take care of a child owing to severe mental or physical challenges.
  • 2. The applicable law on abortion differs in different jurisdictions within the UK. Most UK jurisdictions (England, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales) have legalized abortion on broad social grounds or on request. However Northern Ireland and Gibraltar currently maintain highly restrictive laws that prohibit abortion in almost all circumstances. Potential reforms in both jurisdictions are slated for 2019–2020.
  • 3. Albania, Armenia, Belgium, Cyprus, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Russian Federation.
  • 4. Albania, Armenia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Slovakia, Russian Federation.
  • 5. Albania, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland.
  • 6. On request means that a woman can request an abortion and it can be performed legally without requiring medical practitioners to certify the existence of a specific reason. Laws usually impose time limits on this ground. In a small number of these countries, women may need to state that they are in a state of distress about the pregnancy.
  • 7. Mandatory waiting periods and mandatory counseling requirements are usually only applicable to abortion on request.
  • 8. In Bosnia & Herzegovina separate abortion laws have been adopted in Republika Srpska and in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however legal grounds for abortion are similar in both jurisdictions.
  • 9. The UK jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and Gibraltar and the Danish jurisdiction of the Faroe Islands also maintain highly restrictive laws.
  • 10. The UK jurisdictions of Northern Ireland and Gibraltar and the Danish jurisdiction of the Faroe Islands also maintain highly restrictive laws.