Poland is poised to restrict abortion rights and Italy has been censured by the Council of Europe over the issue.
Does this mark a shift in attitudes towards abortion? We look at the situation across Europe.
A law with many faces
Despite the fact that most countries in the European Union have passed legislation authorising abortion, the laws remain capable of different interpretations. The gap between the text and the reality on the ground is significant.
There are numerous discrepancies across countries and a divide remains. According to the United Nations, members of the EU can be classified into three groups.
The “progressive” statesMost EU member states including France, Denmark, the Netherlands and countries from the south such as Italy, Portugal and Spain are in this group.
Those states allow the practice of abortion on average of up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy, up to 24 weeks in the Netherlands and the UK, and up to 18 weeks in Sweden.
Generally, abortion is performed “on demand” and the decision belongs to the woman. However there are exceptions.
In Luxembourg, for instance, a law was adopted in 2012, allowing abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy on condition of attending a series of consultations and written procedures.
In the UK and Finland, the mother may require consent from a doctor and justification of a risk to her physical and mental health.
The “restrictive” states
The two bastions of Catholicism in Europe, Poland and Ireland are in this group.
In Poland, abortion is allowed in cases of rape and incest, or in case of danger to the life of the mother or deformity of the fetus. In the first two cases, the intervention is permitted until the 12th week, and in the two other cases, the intervention is permitted up 24 weeks.
The result of this restrictive policy has been a rise in the number of illegally-induced abortions. The wealthy go to Germany, the UK or the Netherlands to get their abortions. The less well off have been reported to take a pill against osteoarthritis which can cause contractions and miscarriage.
In Ireland, a new law was passed in July 2013 that allows abortion only in cases of “real and significant” danger to the woman’s life. This risk must be certified by doctors. Where there is a risk of suicide, this must be signed off by an obstetrician in agreement with two psychiatrists.
The law was adopted following the highly publicised case of a young woman who died after she was refused an abortion while having a miscarriage.
The “banning” states
Only one European country prohibits abortion today: Malta. The island imposes a penalty ranging from 18 months to three years’ imprisonment. As for Cyprus, abortion is also illegal, but in cases of rape and incest, it is permitted. Furthermore, abortion can be performed if two doctors certify that the pregnancy carries a threat to the woman or unborn child.