For women and girls in the European Union, access to safe abortion care is a postcode lottery. A patchwork of policies and legislation shape whether abortion is free, safe, and legal. At the extreme end, a small minority of countries ban abortion in almost all circumstances, with devastating results. Most others allow abortion on a person’s own request or on broad social grounds, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy.
But the devil is in the detail, and the detail frequently changes. Many EU countries impose medically unnecessary requirements prior to care, such as compulsory and discouraging counselling and waiting times – going against World Health Organization advice. In 22 out of 27 countries, doctors are still allowed to deny care based on their own personal beliefs – with dire repercussions for access. Hard-won progress can be swiftly unpicked. Issues such as gestational time limits, parental consent, denial of care by medical professionals, and care for rape survivors – among many other issues – remain subject to fierce debate and legislative change.
These are debates that wreak havoc upon the lives of women and girls, but also their families. Denial of care is structural violence: in many of the 27 countries of the EU – a region that likes to present itself on the world stage as a model of progressive values – women and girls are harmed physically, emotionally, and mentally by abortion laws and policies, or the failure to uphold them.
International Safe Abortion Day (28 September) is a time to take stock of progress and threats to safe abortion access over the past year. This feature outlines some of the major developments in abortion legislation – good and bad – across the EU since last September.
The rise of the right-wing
Over the past few decades, the broad move in the EU has been towards liberalising laws around abortion care. Recently, however, the rise of chauvinist right-wing forces and politicians has seen energy and resources flooding into anti-abortion campaigns, fuelling structural violence against women and girls. In Italy, for example, the growing popularity of far-right and right-wing political parties, particularly in northern areas, has emboldened anti-abortion actors and legislators.
With this in mind, the following section runs through some of the main policies and laws that harm people by limiting access to abortion care, introduced over the past 12 months – many of them linked to the rise of far-right and right-wing campaigns and networks in Europe and further afield.
The growth of new anti-abortion legislation
Until recently, Malta was the only country in the EU to have a total ban on abortion. In June 2022, the government drew up new legislation, triggered by the case of American tourist Andrea Prudente who had to be airlifted to Spain for care after she suffered an incomplete miscarriage because doctors in Malta were banned and unwilling to intervene while foetal cardiac activity could be detected.
In the new bill, the government proposed amending the Criminal Code to allow abortions when a woman’s health was at grave risk – hailed as a small but crucial step to improve abortion care access in this staunchly Catholic country. In the final months of 2022, the bill made steady progress through parliament. However, protests by hardline reproductive bullies, who said the bill’s definition of a health risk was too wide, forced the government to back down and introduce amendments. When the legislation was finally approved in June 2023, parliament voted to allow abortion care only when a woman’s life was at risk, and only with the consent of three specialists – a major bureaucratic hurdle. Maltese reproductive rights experts say this new law will put women’s lives even more at risk than the previous status quo.
In Hungary, meanwhile, abortion is legal up to 12 weeks on medical grounds or if the woman is in severe crisis. But in September 2022, the country’s far-right government brought in by decree a measure that forces women seeking care to listen to embryonic cardiac activity before accessing healthcare. In response, IPPF European Network stated: “This requirement has no medical purpose and serves only to humiliate women. It will make accessing abortion more burdensome.”
The legislation was brought in without public consultation or without hearing from women.