Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Across Central and Eastern Europe, legislators and protesters are launching attacks on women’s reproductive freedoms, Sian Norris reports

A year after women’s rights activists took to the streets across Slovakia to fight for their reproductive rights, ultraconservative politicians are once again trying to impose a ban on abortion. 

The move forms part of a pattern of anti-abortion activism in Central and Eastern Europe. 

This includes Poland’s ban on abortions in cases of foetal defect that tightened its already draoconian laws. Terminations are now only permitted in Poland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, threat to the mother’s life, and in cases of rape and incest. 

It also includes the anti-abortion rally in Croatia on 29 May. Although abortion is available on demand up to ten weeks, increasingly doctors are refusing to conduct the procedure on “moral grounds” and a 2017 decision by country’s top court that the law was “outdated” could pave the way for greater restrictions. 

Even in Romania, where at least 10,000 women died from clandestine abortions when the procedure was illegal under Ceaușescu, the interest in “orthodox medicine” and the rise of the far-right AUR Party is causing concern among women’s rights activists.

Called “The Golden Dawn of Romania” in reference to Greece’s neo-Nazi party, AUR’s co-founder Claudiu Tarziu was a member of anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ campaigning group Coalition for the Family. In 2018 it tried and failed to win a referendum to pre-emptively ban equal marriage. 

And while abortion remains legal in Hungary, the ruling Fidesz Party has engaged in increasingly natalist rhetoric and policy-making. A change to the nation’s Constitution affirms that life begins at conception, while Fidesz’ Family Protection Programme incentivises ethnic Hungarian families to have more children. 

In common with many far-right governments, Hungary’s political leaders have started to link abortion to the Great Replacement conspiracy theory. The theory posits that migration is a plot to commit “genocide” against white Europeans, aided by feminism which it accuses of deliberately suppressing the birth rate. 

This approach was summed up in 2017 when Minister for Human Capacities, Dr Miklos Kasler, wrote: “To this day six mil­lion abor­tions have been per­formed, thereby caus­ing one of the worst demo­graphic dis­asters of the Hun­garian na­tion. If it had not been so, there would be over 20 mil­lion eth­nic Hun­gari­ans in total.”


Slovakia’s Latest Assault on Women’s Rights

Abortion rights in Slovakia have been under pressure for the last few years. 

A previous attempt to ban the procedure came in 2018, when the far-right L’SNS Party put forward a Bill to restrict access to terminations on the ground that women end unwanted pregnancies “just because of career, promotion at work, to maintain their slim figure, for their debauched lifestyle and the desire to prolong their youth, or just out of laziness.”

The Bill was unsuccessful, not least because conservative MPs refused to vote with their far-right peers. Aloz Hlina from the anti-abortion Christian Democratic Movement explained that “Christians do not need fascists to help them in their fight to protect human life.”

In 2019, a Bill to try and force women to view an ultrasound before accessing abortion was defeated. The Bill would also have banned “advertising” of abortion and sought to impose a fine of up to €66,400 on those who order or disseminate it information about abortion services. This was again unsuccessful.

Last summer, L’SNS tried again to impose a Poland-style ban. This time, to the surprise of some and the despair of many, L’SNS won support from those same conservatives who had previously refused to vote with the party in protest at its neo-Nazi views. Seventeen mainstream conservative MPs voted for the L’SNS proposal.

It wasn’t enough to pass the law. But in September 2020, another attempt to restrict access to abortion was put forward – this time by OĽaNO MP Anna Záborská. 

Her Bill sought to double the mandatory waiting period currently required before accessing abortion on demand, as well as impose a new layer of medical authorisation requirements for abortion on health grounds. She also wanted women to have to state the reasons they want an abortion. Finally, her draft legislation prohibited “abortion advertising,” as per 2019. The Parliament failed to adopt the amendments. 

Now, MP Martin Čepček (who had his membership in Záborská’s OĽaNO parliamentary caucus suspended) has put forward another Bill that would ban abortion in all cases except fatal foetal abnormality, threat to the mother’s life or in cases of rape and incest. In this, it would mirror the Poland law. Four L’SNS MPs have also put forward their own, similar proposal. 

Čepček has claimed that his Bill has popular support, saying “according to the opinion of most citizens, artificial termination of pregnancy should only be allowed for very serious reasons or should not be allowed at all.”

However, this characterisation is disputed by feminist activist group Možnosť Voľby. Writing on Facebook, it quotes the 2020 Survey of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) that found 55% of respondents think the current law is proportionate and should not be changed, while 19% said the current law is too strict. Only 17% of all respondents and respondents are convinced that the law should make it difficult to access abortion.

Čepček’s Bill will be debated by mid-September. Whether it passes or not, the constant Parliamentary attacks on women’s right to safe, legal abortion risks having a chilling effect on women’s rights. 

L’SNS has had mixed fortunes over the past two years. Having won its highest ever voter numbers in the 2020 election, leading to them taking 17 seats in the Parliament, later that same year its leader Marian Kotleba was sentenced to four years in prison for the illegal use of Nazi symbols. At an event to commemorate the anniversary of the wartime fascist Slovak State, Kotleba had handed out cheques of the sum €1488 – referencing the 14 Words Nazi slogan and “HH” or “Heil Hitler”. He is appealing the conviction. 


Záborská in Europe

In part as a reaction to the gathering anti-gender forces in Europe, the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in the European Parliament authored a report pointing out that “the right to health, in particular sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), are fundamental women’s rights which should be enhanced and cannot in any way be watered down or withdrawn.”

Known as the Matic report, it was adopted by the European Parliament in May and voted on in June, although it has no legislative power to influence national law. It has been targeted by anti-gender activists such as CitizenGO – and by Slovak MP Anna Záborská.

Along with fellow anti-abortion MPs, Záborská submitted a proposal calling on Slovakia’s Parliament to remind the European Parliament that health policies, including on reproductive health, fall under the competences of the nation states. 

Záborská’s resolution text stated the Matic report was therefore “overstepping the competences of the European Parliament.” 

Considering the report has no legislative power over member states, Záborská’s and her colleagues’ response is merely symbolic. But it does represent another attempt to undermine the human rights of women and girls in the country and across the region.

Speaking to The Slovak Spectator, political analyst Pavol Hardoš described the MPs’ actions, saying: “There is a report in the European Parliament that pointed to a shortage regarding human rights in member states, including Slovakia, and they perceive it as something they need to reject because it could be a threat to their values.”

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