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20th Feb 2020

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Council of Europe warns on backlash to abortion access

  • A protest against an anti-abortion law in Poland in 2016 (Photo: Iga Lubczanska)

A backlash against access to abortion in some EU member states in the past few years is "deeply troubling", the Council of Europe warned on Tuesday (5 December).

In the majority of EU countries abortions are legal, but in some states a wave of "retrogressive restrictions" are threatening women's health and well-being, the European human rights organisation's report said.

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  • The Council of Europe emphasised that sex education is one of the most critical issues in guaranteeing women's sexual and reproductive health. (Photo: Nina Burge)

Proposals for a near-total bans on abortion have been tabled in recent years in Lithuania, Slovakia, Spain and Poland, the report states.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of the backlash is Poland, where in 2016 a proposed bill to completely outlaw abortions was tabled - but later blocked in the wake of massive citizen demonstrations.

Poland is also among those countries where the council has concerns about "retrogressive" court decisions, such as that from the Polish Constitutional Tribunal which abolished a requirement that doctors who refuse to perform terminations to refer their patient to an alternative medical provider.

Today Poland has some of the strictest laws on abortion in the EU, alongside the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland (part of the UK, but with separate provisions on abortion) and Malta - which prohibits abortion in all situations.

In September 2014 the Spanish government failed to reach consensus over a proposal making abortion illegal, except in cases of rape or when the mother's health is at risk.

In Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, the council report finds, a range of criteria that pregnant women must fulfil before they can obtain legal abortion services, such as "biased counselling requirements prior to abortion" and "medically unnecessary waiting periods", are promoted.

These preconditions have been repeatedly criticised for impinging on women's rights, as they are not in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for a safe abortion.

Most of these anti-abortion initiatives were defeated - except in Slovakia - following large-scale protests. But the report warns they illustrate "the extent and nature of the backlash to the advancement of women's rights and gender equality in some parts of Europe."

Given the "resurgent trend" seeking to roll back protections in this field - women's sexual and reproductive rights - established only after "a long struggle" have to be protected, said the council's commissioner for human rights Nils Muiznieks.

Another major issue, the council reports, is that some states failed to adopt measures to ensure that women can access legal abortion services when medical professionals refuse care "on grounds of conscience or religion".

In Italy, where abortion has been legal since it was approved through a referendum in 1978, approximately 70 percent of doctors refuse to provide abortions, the report states.

The European Union has long supported safe and legal abortion.

Speaking in March 2017, after US president Donald Trump's announcement on re-introducing a ban of US development funds being used by organisations that carry out abortions, EU development commissioner Neven Mimica said the EU's funds support "a wide spectrum of services allowed by the country's legal framework, including safe abortion."

In a February 2017's recommendation, the European Parliament called on EU member states to significantly increase "sexual and reproductive health and rights funding and launching an international fund to finance access to birth control and safe and legal abortion."

In February 2017 some European Parliament's groups - the Liberal Alde, the centre left S&D, and the radical left GUE/NGL) recognised the "severe conservative backlash" in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in "Hungary, Poland, UK and other countries".

The parliament also said in 2016 that sexual and reproductive health and rights have to be "respected, protected and fulfilled" by member states, and have to be free from "coercion, discrimination and violence."

Education

The Council of Europe emphasised that sex education is one of the most critical issues in guaranteeing women's sexual and reproductive health.

This is especially so considering the "high numbers" of people who still do not use condoms or other effective methods of contraception.

A 2016's report on adolescent health and well-being by the Lancet revealed that sexually transmitted infections are a significant problem in Europe.

And the World Health Organization pointed out last week that in 2016 Europe registered 160,000 new cases of HIV, 80 percent of which is in eastern European countries.

Although several European countries have established sex education programmes of some kind, information provided is not medically "accurate, scientific and age-appropriate" in a number of states, or is focused on a "preparation for family life", the council said.

In addition, in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, sex education either remains voluntary or policies allow children to be withdrawn from classes.

Even though it is a competence of the member states to formulate and implement policies on health and on education, the EU has a clear position on the issue.

In a February's report on equality between women and men in the European Union, the parliament said that "education and information policies for teenagers, young people and adults" are necessary to ensure that EU citizens benefit from good sexual and reproductive health.

Member states, the parliament added, should "promote gender equality in their comprehensive sex and relationship education programmes, including teaching girls and boys about relationships based on consent, respect and reciprocity."

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