A “virus” of restrictive abortion legislation is spreading from Eastern Europe, health experts and rights campaigners have said, amid Church pressure and misguided government attempts to stop falling birth rates.
Just weeks ago a new law was introduced in Macedonia tightening up relatively liberal abortion legislation which had been followed for more than 40 years. And last month, Lithuanian lawmakers gave initial approval to some of strictest abortion legislation in the world.
Tighter abortion laws are also being considered in Russia and the Ukraine while the Georgian parliament is expected to debate abortion laws after the country’s Orthodox Church made calls in May for it to be banned.
Critics say that some governments appear to be moving towards introducing total bans on the procedure.
Bojan Jovanovski, executive director of the Health Education and Research Association (HERA) in Macedonia, told IPS: “What has happened here is not unique and is happening in a lot of countries, spreading like a virus from Eastern Europe westwards.
“What this law here will do in the short term is it will make it harder for women to get an abortion, because of the bureaucracy and hurdles they will face. This will possibly lead to them undergoing illegal abortions and the problems that brings with it.
“But its wider meaning is that it is a step towards more restrictive measures and, ultimately, a ban on abortions.”
In recent years Eastern Europe has witnessed a push, in many cases driven by socially dominant Churches, to reinforce or tighten abortion legislation and deter access to them.
In strongly Catholic Poland, abortion legislation is among the strictest in the world. Interruptions are legally allowed in only three kinds of cases: rape, incest or if the mother’s health is at risk. But perhaps more importantly, in practice it is virtually unobtainable as many doctors refuse to carry out the procedure.
Women’s rights groups say that virulent pro-life societal attitudes fostered by a Catholic Church whose influence is omnipresent at all levels of society, including in political parties, leads healthcare staff to refuse to help women seeking terminations, even in cases where they have a legal right to them. The doctors cite either their own religious convictions or fear of reprisals as reasons stopping them performing the procedure.
It is estimated that there are up to 200,000 illegal abortions carried out in Poland every year because women cannot access them legally and do not have the money to travel abroad to undergo the procedure in countries where it is legal.
Because of their nature, these illegal abortions are inherently risky. They are almost invariably carried out in unsterile conditions, usually in a room in a flat, by a doctor anxious to get the termination completed for constant fear of being caught and potentially jailed.
No figures of mortality rates or serious health problems resulting from these illegal abortions can be obtained because of their clandestine nature.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that even today up to 30 percent of maternal deaths in some countries of Eastern Europe and central Asia are caused by unsafe abortions.
The new Lithuanian law, which is modelled on Poland’s legislation, will also allow terminations only in cases of rape, incest or health complications. Abortion is currently allowed on demand up until 12 weeks. The new legislation must pass further parliamentary approval before it comes into law.
The region’s declining birth rate has been another factor behind the anti-abortion trend at the political level. Many politicians believe that restricting abortion access will help push birth rates up.
But evidence from Poland and other countries around the world suggests otherwise.
Wanda Nowicka, a prominent Polish women’s rights campaigner and member of a United Nations taskforce for next year’s International Conference on Population and Development, told IPS: “Since 1993 when Poland introduced its strict abortion legislation the birth rate has fallen. But politicians still follow the populist argument (to limit access to abortion).”
Official government figures show the Polish birth rate has fallen steadily from 1993 to 2012.
Nowicka added: “What happens is that when a woman is unsure about her reproductive choices she decides not to have children.”
Poland’s abortion law served as the model for the new legislation in Lithuania, and it was originally proposed by MPs from the country’s Polish minority. The Church, as in Poland, has a strong influence in society and among politicians and it has for years actively backed a tightening of the country’s abortion legislations.
The law is also expected to have a negative impact on Polish women’s abortion options as many currently cross the northern border to Lithuania for abortions they cannot get in their homeland. This will potentially force even more into undergoing dangerous illegal terminations.
In Macedonia, under the new legislation, official requests for abortions will have to be submitted, women will have to attend counselling, and confirm their partner has been informed of their decision to have an abortion. They will also be banned from having a second abortion within a year of their first.
The government has said that the new law was brought in to strengthen women’s health. But critics contend this, pointing out that it was approved in just two weeks in accelerated parliamentary procedures – effectively preventing any debate about it – and that gynaecologists were not consulted in its drafting.
Jovanovski told IPS: “The law does not meet international human rights nor medical health standards.”
He added: “What’s happened here might be copied by other Balkan countries and in other parts of Eastern Europe and spread. Countries in the West that have long traditions of upholding human rights should be looking at this closely and doing something about it.”