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Which European countries have the strictest abortion rules?

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Which European countries have the strictest abortion rules?

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The Irish government has agreed to hold a referendum this year on whether to reform the country’s near-total ban on abortion.

The vote on whether to repeal a constitutional amendment from 1983 that effectively bans terminations is expected to spark strong debate between those in favour of reforms and those who want the policy to stay put. 

Ahead of the vote, the country’s health minister will draft legislation proposing unrestricted access to abortion for women who are up to 12 weeks pregnant, and in exceptional circumstances afterwards.

But would the proposed changes bring the country in line with its European neighbours?

The general picture

Most countries in the EU have legislation allowing for early abortion on request, and permitting terminations in certain circumstances beyond that.

Leah Hoctor, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Euronews that 25 of 28 EU member states have made it lawful for women to access abortion "either on a woman’s request, without restriction as to reason or for reasons of distress, or on broad socioeconomic or psychological grounds, at least in early pregnancy."

Of the countries that specify a period for an abortion on request, the limit varies from 10 weeks from the woman’s last menstrual period, in countries such as Slovenia and Croatia, to 18 weeks in Sweden.

The average time limit specified is 12 weeks.

British law states that abortions are permitted up to 24 weeks of pregnancy if the continuance would risk the “physical or mental health” of the woman or her children.

Legislation in the majority of countries also cites foetal impairment as a reason for women to be allowed abortions.

Other reasons cited in some EU countries’ legislation are rape, incest, and physical or mental health issues.

“In the EU most pieces of legislation are in keeping with human rights laws,” Amnesty International women’s rights researcher Anna Blus told Euronews, saying that such laws give women “bodily autonomy and health autonomy.”

Irene Donadio, Senior Lead, Strategy and Partnership at the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Network, said Europe was “one of the most progressive regions in the world, thanks to work of women’s rights leaders, civil society groups and social movements.”

“Access to abortion care has become the social norm, and it is supported by wide public consensus,” she told Euronews, citing Sweden, France and the Netherlands as the most progressive countries in the region.

The strictest countries

Aside from Ireland,  Malta, Northern Ireland and Poland have the strictest abortion regulations in European Union. 

The Center for Reproductive Rights lists both Ireland and Poland in the category of allowing abortion only to save a woman’s life or prohibiting it altogether based on an assessment of legislation.

Northern Ireland allows abortion in cases of physical or mental health risks, while Poland currently permits terminations when the life of the foetus is under threat, when there is a grave threat to the health of the mother, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

Legislation vs. reality

The legislation in European countries doesn’t always match the reality on the ground, according to Donadio.

“In some countries, legislation may look restrictive or oppressive on paper, but in reality women are able to access the care they need without difficulty,” she said.

“In others, the opposite is true: they may have fairly liberal legislation on paper, but in fact the way that this is implemented makes it difficult and sometimes to impossible to access care.”

Donadio cited refusal of care in Italy as an example of abortion practices not matching legislation, and said forced waiting periods, “bullying counselling” and denial of care based on conscience clauses were among the issues in European countries. 

'You do not speak for me, Leo'

While many have supported Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's call for a referendum in Ireland, others opposing the reforms have argued that abortion denies the rights of the unborn child, tweeting their views under the hashtag #SaveThe8th.