Europe: ready for birth of abortion law?

Article published on April 15, 2010
Article published on April 15, 2010
On 13 April, the first-ever 'Brussels March For Life' took place in Belgium, which legalised abortion in 1990. Almost a month earlier though, women's rights pioneer Simone Veil became the sixth women ever to be 'immortalised' at the French academy. But 35 years after her 'Veil Law' legalised abortion in France, the topic remains a controversial issue

On 18 March, Simone ‘the French nation’s favourite woman’ Veil became the fifth woman to be inducted at the French academy (Académie Française), a prestigious institution which was off limits to the female race for a long time. Former president Valérie Valery Giscard d'Estaing (for whom she was once health minister), the novelist Jean d’Ormesson and other renowned ‘immortals’ have always been full of praise for the 72-year-old, a ‘model of independence’. The former first female president of the European parliament's induction at the Academy is also an opportunity to promote her famous Veil law of 1975 which legalised abortion. ‘You offer us a republican and a moral image at the heart of political life,’ gushed d’Ormesson during his welcoming speech to the new ‘immortal’ (the title awarded to the 40 members of academy). 

Marie Louise Giraud, ‘illegal abortionist’

In France however, the Republic’s ‘moral stance’ hasn’t always been in favour of the right to abortion that Simone Veil promoted. On 30 July 1943, 'illegal abortionist’ Marie Louise Giraud was executed by General Pétain’s regime for carrying out 27 underground abortions. Some people would say that France under the Vichy government isn’t a great example of morality; they wouldn’t be wrong. Yet large numbers of opponents to the law continued to emerge after this period, when Simone Veil brought the proposed law before parliament. In reality, abortion has remained taboo. The pout and all-holy ‘it depends on the circumstances I’m not sure’ diatribe is still the most common and politically correct response to the question: ‘Do you think that the right to an elective, non-medical abortion would be a good policy?’

Funds were reduced by 42% in 2009What is the magic formula that allowed a previously unthinkable law to be accepted? There are two possible answers. The first possibility is that the state has used the brilliant tactic of combining the law with media hype created by fast-thinking spin doctors, with everything hanging on the referendum for the right to abortion, more by submission to the law than via an evolution of public opinion. The second possibility takes into account the role of society somewhat more; the sexual revolution of the 1960s and all of its legacies, the creation of the French movement for family planning (Mouvement Français pour le Planning Familial, which has worked alongside French authorities to promote women’s rights in areas such as contraception and campaigns against violence since 1971), and so on. So many civil sector initiatives have facilitated a change in peoples’ attitudes. According to this theory, the law can be seen to have simply followed the evolution of the state of mind of French citizens. The first possibility is certainly lacking something, but the second also seems simplistic. For the French writer Eric Zemmour, a man used to all types of provocation, ‘The Veil law was simply a compassionate makeshift solution’!

Reminder: abortion in Europe

During the 3 July 2002 session in Strasbourg, the European parliament adopted a resolution recommending that member states and Central and Eastern European countries candidate countries legalise abortion. It was passed by 280 votes to 240. It would seem that this policy has been applied in the majority of EU countries. Portugal, one of the last member states opposed to abortion, voted to legalise non-medical abortion up until the tenth week of pregnancy on 8 March 2007. This was two months after the Portuguese people had approved this evolution by referendum. The case of Portugal shows that it's difficult to say whether the state or the civil sector is the primary catalyst for an evolution of social mores. However, in terms of European legislation, no policy has been published on this subject- yet. As more time passes, more rebellious students turn a deaf ear.

In Ireland, a constitutional article passed by law in 1983 protects the life of an embryo to the same extent as that of the pregnant woman. Non-medical abortion is therefore illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk. Since March 2010 in Spain, abortion has been allowed up until 14 weeks of gestation and, more controversially, for over-16s to take without adult consent. In Italy, it has been legal up until 12 and a half weeks since 1978 - though one report has stated that 70% of doctors use their 'moral rights' to refuse abortion. In Malta, it is banned completely (along with divorce).

Poland: 10-year battle of Alicja Tysiac

In Poland, the right to a non-medical abortion has been restricted to exceptional cases since 1993. This is a regression seeing as the communist regime had legalised abortion as early as 1956! It was the first country in Europe to do so, before Great Britain and Sweden in 1938. But when the state refuses this right, is expatriation the only alternative? Not for Alicja Tysiac. After being refused the right to an abortion by strict laws in Poland in March 2007 - doctors had warned her that having a third child in 2000 could lead her worsening eyesight to blindness - her individual appeal to the European court of human rights resulted in the Polish state being charged and fined 25, 000 euros. The refusal to abort violated the Polish law that prevented it! This is a victory that the disabled 38-year-old is still paying for considerably today; she has received threats from the catholic church and the Polish extreme right. On 5 March the diocesan magazine Gosc Niedzielny ('Sunday Visitor') was fined 30, 000 zloty (7, 768 euros or £6, 829) for slander after comparing Alicja Tysiac to a Nazi war criminal.

So, is a European law on abortion necessary to change moral values throughout Europe's member states? Or must we wait for an evolution of values to filter in slowly, country by country?

Images: main ©Libertinus; ©Mon Œil/ both courtesy of Flickr