Debating abortion in Europe, 2013-2014: What is really at stake

By Aurore Guieu | 10 June 2014

To quote this document: Aurore Guieu, “Debating abortion in Europe, 2013-2014: What is really at stake”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 10 June 2014,, displayed on 06 December 2022

Major policy and legal chances have happened in a range of European countries in 2013 and early 2014, and the coming months will see some major votes on the question. How does the “abortion debate” look like in Europe today and what does it say about European societies and politics?

To many Europeans, the debate on abortion is happening elsewhere: probably in those developing countries where women's rights are always perceived to be worse, or in the United States with abortion clinics staff equipped with bulletproof vests. But the fight is also raging home.

In the past 18 months, the front has (re)-opened throughout Europe – with no region spared.  Western or Central Europe, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean or the Baltic regions: local challenges but regional high stakes. Though many now consider abortion granted in Europe, this human right remains young and extremely fragile. Why have so many countries been faced with abortion debates in 2013 and early 2014? And what does it say about European societies and politics?

Spain: The radical U-turn

Spain has recently been at the forefront of the abortion debate with a draft bill restricting access to rape victims and mothers whose life may be endangered by the pregnancy. The Council of Europe has warned this would be « the greatest step backwards as regards rights and freedoms in Spain », and the public outcry has reached mainstream media in Spain and beyond. The CELEM, a women's rights organization, has consequently launched « the travel agency that should never exist », an initiative reminding of times when women had to travel abroad to abort – when they could afford the expense.

In Spain, abortion was first legalized in 1985 with conditions, and made finally available to all women within 14 weeks of pregnancy – up to 22 weeks in specific cases. The current draft is even more restrictive than the 1985 provisions, with foetal malformation or underage mothers out of the picture.

The government approved the bill on January 14th and Prime Minister Rajoy recently declared that he did not hear anybody complain between 1985 and 2010. His party programme for the 2010 elections only mentioned the will to “change the model of the current law” on abortion – in a paragraph aimed at protecting motherhood. Those two elements show that abortion can still be quietly presented as a threat to motherhood, family and society by a mainstream political party in Europe; and that 25 years of advocacy can easily be dismissed. Surveys show that a majority of Spaniards is opposing the bill – but how many will lobby their representatives to ensure that it is not voted by the Parliament in the coming months?

Poland and France: Fighting against 'Gender'

Significant change will come when Poland will not systematically be part of any article on abortion in Europe. In the meantime, despite being already one of the most restrictive countries in the region, Poland is still host to regular heated debate on the topic.

In September 2013, a petition gathering 400.000 signatures asked for foetal life-threatening conditions to be scrapped off the access list. It was finally rejected by the Parliament, by only one vote. Two years earlier, a similar draft was defeated by a tiny majority. In practice, even women qualifying for abortion encounter major obstacles to access it. If some pro-choice parties such as the Palikot movement seem to gain influence, the coalition system means that parties whose members are divided on the topic often tend to give way to most conservative parties with clear anti-abortion stance. In this context, Poland seems likely to keep its line on sexual rights and abortion despite ongoing mobilization from feminist movements.

The debate around abortion in Poland is now increasingly embedded in wider discussions around gender equality (gender having been chosen the word of the year 2013), with a parliamentary group examining ways to “stop gender ideology”. Cardinal Pieronek, considered rather liberal, declared that gender is a bigger threat than Nazism and Communism combined.

This use of gender studies as a scapegoat is similar in France. Since the 2012-13 debate on gay marriage, conservative movements are on the rise and frequently make the headlines by opposing measures they consider instrumental to “the theory of gender”. This climate encourages conservatives to openly question the right to abortion, with the extreme-right leader Le Pen wondering why “comfort abortions” are reimbursed and many right-wing politicians claiming the 'traditional' family is under siege.

Norway and Lithuania: Uncertainties about the future

Scandinavia is often cited as a lighthouse in Europe in terms of women's rights. But in autumn 2013, after a Norwegian hospital was found to have performed 12 abortions beyond the legal date, the newly appointed government proposed a new set of restrictions. It includes the impossibility to access abortion after 18 weeks of pregnancy, except in life-threatening health conditions, and the option for general practitioners to refuse to refer their patients desiring an abortion to the relevant health professionals. This would extent the current clause of conscientious objection and was opposed by 165 mayors. However, the Conservative and Progress parties (the latter being widely described as right-wing populist) maintain the proposal and Prime Minister Erna Soldberg even declared “this is not about women's right to abortion. People who try to say it is are wrong”

On May 28th, 2013, the Parliament of Lithuania voted a bill similar to that discussed in Spain. The government expressed its opposition to such measure and Health Minister Andriukaitis declared that this would run counter to the national Constitution, the European Charter of Human Rights and the rulings of the European Court of Justice. However, the government declared some of the restrictions could be accepted, such as pre-procedure psychological consultations mandatory for all women. In 2014, the law is still under review in the parliamentary committees.

Why now?

The economic crisis and an ageing European population provide two fantastic entry points for the anti-abortion movement. In an interview with the Council of Europe, the Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation for the European Region, Vicky Claeys, warned against the instrumentalization of abortion in times of crisis. It is indeed striking that economic arguments are put forward by anti-abortion activists, when history shows that restricting access to abortion disproportionally affects poor women, who do not have the financial means to abort abroad or bribe a doctor for a safe procedure.

A supposedly “massive” use of abortion would be at the root of European instabilities: ageing societies, pressure on social security and pension schemes, and changing family values – despite the accumulation of statistics showing this is not the case. For example, the Polish birth rates remain among the lowest in Europe. Abortion, gay marriage, transgender identities: all those important societal topics are denounced in bulk in national debates. And this discourse made a flamboyant (re)appearance on the EU stage in December 2013.

The so-called Estrela report aimed at reinforcing sexual and reproductive rights in all EU Member states, including the right to safe abortion for women who wish so. The proposition clearly stated that abortion is not a contraceptive method; that no woman should be pushed to abort for economic reasons; and that legal abortion is most useful when combined with sexual education and family planning. The report tackled a wide range of sexual rights topics and would have represented a major step forward for human rights in the EU. However, it profoundly divided the European Parliament and was rejected by a very small majority.

The anti-abortion mobilization has continued in 2014 with the submission in February of “One of Us”, a Citizens' Initiative (1.7 million signatures) to forbid all research using embryonic stem cells as well as development aid funding directly or indirectly abortion – an attempt that directly threatened international efforts and the Millennium Goals to improve maternal health throughout the world. Ultimately, this could have served as a stepping stone to ban abortion within European borders. After review, the European Commission declined to endorse the proposed legislative act, but its answer did not put forward the right for women to choose, in Europe and abroad.

What to do?

2014 will be critical with a series of votes taking place – all of them potentially restricting access. Anti-abortion movements have been very successful at mobilizing militants; the same is not true on the pro-choice side. Europeans either feel this right will never be threatened (when they have access) or that they will never obtain it (when they don't). Men remain difficult to engage, and pro-choice groups tend to be mostly composed of young urban women. The abortion debate is symptomatic of a European conservative trend. What will it mean to have been silent?


Thanks to Annamaria Toth, Greta Galareta and Guillermo Ruiz for their suggestions and help with the specifics of some of the national contexts described in the article.

To Go Further

On Nouvelle Europe:

On the Internet:

  • Center for Reproductive Rights, The World's Abortion Laws Map 2013 Update, PDF available here
  • Podcast (April 2014), Vicky Claeys: « Europe's review of abortion rights is part of a war against women », available on the Council of Europe website
  • International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network, 10 reasons to oppose the 'One of Us' European Citizens' Initiative, available here
  • European Parliament, complete procedure file for the Estrela report

Image Credits: © Diane GUIEU