Today
Mon 29 November 2021

Abortion is under threat in the Central European country – with the latest attack forming part of a global backlash against reproductive and sexual rights from the right

Slovakia’s Parliament is set to debate a new law that will restrict access to abortion, with women and allies across the country mounting protests to defend their reproductive rights. 

This is the fourth consecutive year when right-wing and far-right politicians have attempted to ban or restrict abortion in the country, where terminations are available on demand up to 12 weeks and in exceptional cases such as fatal foetal abnormality up until the end of pregnancy. Slovakia does not have medical abortions so all terminations are surgical. 

“Every half a year lawmakers try and bring in a new restriction on abortion,” Petra Kovarovicova, a gynaecologist who has co-authored an open letter challenging the bill, told Byline Times

In 2018, 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”. This was followed by an attempt from the mainstream right in 2019 to force women to view an ultrasound of their foetus before having a termination.

In 2020, L’SNS once again challenged the right to safe, legal abortion, this time with unprecedented support from Christian conservative colleagues, while a narrowly defeated bill in September 2020 put forward by OLANO MP Anna Záborská sought to restrict access. 

Now, Záborská has proposed a Bill titled ‘On Helping Pregnant Women’ which, along with offering incentives to new mothers, could make it harder for women to access abortion. 

Currently, women must go through a two-day cooling-off period when requesting an abortion up to 12-weeks. The Bill increases that waiting period to 96 hours. It also extends the cooling-off period for abortions after 12 weeks, “unless there is an imminent threat to a woman’s health.”

“Even if you are raped you will be made to wait,” explained paediatrician Tatiana Spevakova, co-author of the open letter. “Even if the baby is going to die right after it is born.” 

“Lengthening the waiting period could result in women seeking abortions in neighbouring countries instead, delaying potentially life-saving care,” Professor of Maternal and Reproductive Health, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp Belgium, Lenka Beňová told Byline Times. 

The change could mean a woman needing a surgical miscarriage following the death of her foetus must wait four days before being allowed treatment. A similar approach led to the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland in 2012. The 31-year-old died of a cardiac arrest related to sepsis after doctors refused to intervene when her baby died in the womb. 

Supporters of Zaborska’s Bill claim that in such cases, doctors will intervene before the 96-hour period comes to an end. But, as reproductive health campaigner Zuzana Kriskova points out, “the law is the law and this creates chaos where people won’t know whether they can or should intervene or not.” 

Complicating things further is how the Bill wishes to determine “the conditions for abortion with regard to the protection of human life even before it is born, to protect life and health of women and in the prospect of planned and responsible parenthood.”

The need to protect human life before birth contradicts a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. Kriskova told Byline Times that the language reflects the “Eighth Amendment in Ireland that banned abortion. We know from Ireland, from Poland, from the United States that when it comes to a balance of the right to life of the woman or the foetus, women always lose.” 

The Bill also seeks to ban abortion advertising, which in practice means doctors informing patients they offer terminations. It could even lead to a ban on medical instruments used to perform abortion and surgical being included in catalogues. There are already regions in Slovakia where no doctors or hospitals offer abortion – this change makes it harder for women to know where to go to access care. 

“It is already very, very hard to get the procedure,” Spevakova explained. “I don’t want my daughters to be found in situation when they need help and no one is able to provide it.”

“They make it seem like they care about women, that they want to give women time to think, but that’s not really what is happening,” said Kovarovicova.

While attempts to restrict abortion in Slovakia have failed before, this time there is real concern among campaigners the Bill will succeed. Záborská has 75 MPs in support of her plans – higher than in previous votes – including the far-right L’SNS Party, SMER and Hlas. 

“This time it is different,” said Kovarovicova. “It has been approved by the majority.”

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Záborská and the Global Assault on Women’s Rights 

The attack on abortion rights in Slovakia forms part of a worldwide attack on women’s reproductive and sexual rights that spans from the Texas abortion ban in the US to January’s increased restrictions on abortion in Poland. 

In the mid-2010s, Záborská supported the One Of Us initiative, a pan-European effort that helped to launch what Agenda Europe praised as creating “momentum towards a European Federation of pro-life organisations”. Agenda Europe is a shadowy network of anti-gender actors determined to “restore the natural order” by banning abortion and contraception, as well as being anti-LGBTIQ rights. Throughout the 2010s it ran secretive summits, including one attended by Oliver Hylton, an employee of elite Conservative donor and Vatican bank board member Sir Michael Hintze.

Záborská is also linked to the World Congress of Families, an international movement of anti-gender actors, having been part of the Madrid Congress in 2012. The World Congress of Families brings together politicians, activists and religious leaders at annual conferences and has been designated as an anti-LGBTIQ hate group by the human rights organisation Southern Poverty Law Centre. Its President, religious-right activist Brian Brown, is also the President of the National Organisation of Marriage in the US and on the board of anti-gender campaigning group CitizenGO, having provided it with seed funding via his organisation ActRight.

The global crisis pregnancy movement also plays its part in the attempt to undermine safe and legal abortion in Slovakia. Záborská held a leadership role in Forum Zivota, an anti-abortion NGO that runs “crisis pregnancy” services. In 2014, representatives from Forum Zivota spoke at a conference in Bratislava organised by the US crisis pregnancy organisation Heartbeat International. The latter has been accused of using disinformation to manipulate women out of getting abortions. 

Heartbeat International was one of many organisations signing a letter in support of anti-abortion Bills in Slovakia – along with the UK’s Right To Life. The British charity counts Conservative MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg, Fiona Bruce, Maria Caulfied, Sir Edward Leigh and others, as well as Labour’s Mary Glindon, as among its patrons. Other signatories include France’s Fondation Jéróme Lejeune, HazteOir (CitizenGo) from Spain, Movimento Italiano per la vita, the One of Us Federation and Ordo Iuris, in Poland. 

Záborská’s international connections show that anti-abortion bills do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a global and networked effort to undermine and attack women’s reproductive rights. 

“What we know from research studies globally is that restricting access to abortions does not lead to a reduction in abortions,” Beňová told Byline Times. “It leads to more abortions being conducted in unsafe and distressing circumstances. Countries that have the lowest abortion-related mortality and best maternal health outcomes are those which trust women’s decisions and do not put barriers to accessing evidence-based health interventions. Slovakia should be working on expanding access to safe abortion care using most recent evidence.”

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