Center for Reproductive Rights Releases New Brief of European Abortion Laws

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Europe leads the world with its number of liberalized laws on abortion, but many women still face access barriers due to regulatory restrictions or regressive threats
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(PRESS RELEASE) --A new comparative overview of European abortion laws, released today by the Center for Reproductive Rights, reveals that more than 95% of women of reproductive age currently live in countries where laws allow abortion either on request or on broad social grounds.

This impressive statistic nevertheless masks the fact that some of these countries maintain restrictive pre-conditions, such as mandatory counselling or enforced waiting periods, that can impede or delay women accessing services. In addition, abortion is still outlawed or extremely restricted in six countries in the region.

The report, European Abortion Laws: A Comparative Overview, outlines that the trend is squarely towards positive and progressive liberalizing reform in the European region, such as the recent legalization of abortion on request in Cyprus, Ireland and Iceland. It also warns, however, that the region remains at considerable risk of attempts to rollback abortion rights, such as current proposals before the Slovakian parliament that would introduce extreme mandatory requirements prior to abortion that are contrary to international human rights principles and law. 

The new report reveals that, currently, across the European region:

  • Thirty-nine countries (ranging right across the continent, from Portugal and Spain in the West to Turkey and the Russian Federation in the East) have legalized abortion on request (i.e where abortion is legal without the need for a medical practitioner or other authority to certify a particular reason for the abortion)
  • Two countries (Finland and the United Kingdom) have legalized abortion on broad social grounds
  • Six countries retain highly restrictive abortion laws – Andorra, Malta and San Marino do not allow abortion in any circumstances; Liechtenstein allows abortion only when a woman’s life or health is at risk, or where the pregnancy resulted from sexual assault; Monaco and Poland allow abortion only when a woman’s life or health is at risk, following a sexual assault, or where a severe foetal anomaly has been detected

Some countries have set time limits on abortion on request at between 18-24 weeks of pregnancy, while others set these limits around the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. All of these countries’ laws allow access later in pregnancy in specific circumstances, such as where a woman’s health or life is at risk, and here the standard practice is not to impose any time limitation at all.

Despite having legalized abortion, some European countries have maintained a range of procedural rules and regulations that can impede and delay women’s access to abortion care.  These include:

  • mandatory waiting periods between the date on which an abortion is first requested and the date on which it may take place;
  • laws compelling women to undergo counselling, which can sometimes be required to be biased or directive;
  • short rigid time limits for accessing abortion that may disproportionately affect certain groups of women; and
  • criminalising women or medical professionals who act outside of the legal framework for abortion provision

Although the general trend in Europe has been towards increasing liberalization and removing barriers to access, in recent years some countries in Europe have attempted to roll back existing legal protections for women’s access to abortion care. Initiatives have ranged from attempts to introduce regressive pre-conditions before abortions can take place, such as mandatory biased counselling, or waiting periods, to attempts to fully ban abortion or remove existing legal grounds for abortion.

“Women in Europe have fought long and hard for legal entitlements to access abortion care,” said Leah Hector, Regional Director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

As recent events in Poland and Slovakia demonstrate, rights to access abortion may be arbitrarily threatened by attempts to introduce new barriers or scale back on the legality of abortion care, and we must be ever vigilant.

“Comparative reports like this one help to capture the current status of abortion law and practice across the region, and provide advocates and policy makers with information on where and how their efforts should be focused moving forward. There is much progress still to be made if Europe is to achieve the promise of gender equality.”

To download a copy of European Abortion Laws: A Comparative Overview go to: https://reproductiverights.org/document/european-abortion-law-fact-sheet