Abortion Rights Are Backsliding in the US and Europe


Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

Status of abortion rights in the US

In possibly the most contentious court case in generations, an unprecedented leak of a draft US Supreme Court ruling suggests that a majority of justices support abolishing federal provisions for abortions. While the proposal could yet change, if it does not, it will result in 26 states outlawing abortion immediately or as soon as possible, marking a significant shift in the legal and political landscape in the United States. However, looking at the bright side, there are few states that since the news have been pushing forward new legislation protecting abortion access. On April 4, Democrat Governor of Colorado Jared Polis signed a bill codifying the right to an abortion. The measure went into effect right away.

The leaked document was published by POLITICO, and is now being referred to as ‘1st Draft’. It appears like the Supreme Court – with a conservative majority – is on the verge of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed the legal status of abortion in all states in the USA. According to the leaked draft, the ruling justices’ intention to overturn Roe v. Wade stems from the fact that the right to abortion is not codified in the Constitution, and that the case constitutes a problematic and dysfunctional precedent that has ‘done harm’. If Roe is overturned, millions of women in the US could lose their right to abortion as each state is able to independently make its own laws on abortion. As we know from the many protests that characterised the US political landscape last year, several individual states in the US are eager to make abortion illegal, and in fact 13 have already passed ‘trigger laws’ to make them more difficult. However, the Supreme Court’s decision could still change, the new ruling is expected to be issued in late June or early July.

Status of abortion rights in Europe

Abortion rights are at the centre of European politics as well, and the US regression to unprotective laws could influence a backsliding in European countries. When it comes to abortion accessibility, Europe is sometimes considered as a beacon of liberalism. Despite the fact that the European Parliament declared access to safe abortion a human right last year, access varies greatly across Europe in practise.

Abortion is legal in the first trimester of pregnancy in most EU countries. Northern European countries are the most liberal when it comes to abortion access, having been among the first to legalise the procedure. According to IPSOS data, sentiments toward abortion rights are generally positive in the continent’s north: in Sweden, 88% of respondents support women having the freedom to choose whether or not to have an abortion, while 87% in the Netherlands, 84% in France, UK and the Netherlands believe the same.

In Eastern and southern European countries, on the other hand, ferocious debates over abortion are ongoing.  In Hungary, for example, Viktor Orbán’s right-wing administration has promised additional funds to hospitals that agree to not perfom abortions, and women seeking the procedure must first attend two mandated counselling sessions.  In Slovakia, MPs from the ruling party have tried several times to restrict access to abortion services, but each time they have been narrowly rejected by Slovakia’s parliament.

Malta has the harshest abortion regulations in the EU: it is illegal to access abortion under any circumstances in the predominantly Catholic country. Women are getting around the prohibition by obtaining abortion medicines online, while others must fly abroad to have an abortion.

Around 70% of Italian gynaecologists declare themselves to be conscientious objectors. According to Human Rights Watch, Italian women are strugling to obtain timely access to safe abortions, with some having to go abroad to get the care they require. Similarly, in Spain, despite abortion being legal since 1985, women face some of the same obstacles, with many having to travel hundreds of kilometres to find a practitioner. Anti-abortion activists reach women trying to termanite their pregnancies outside of clinics and try to persuade them to change their mind. They also invite these women to enter a van they call “ambulance” where there is an ultrasound machine, so that the activists can show the women what they are giving up. It’s a situation that the current government of PM Pedro Sánchez wants to change. Protests outside abortion clinics will be considered “harassment” under a draught bill that passed its first reading in Spain’s parliament in February.

The case of Poland

After a high court declared in 2020 that pregnancies could not be terminated owing to congenital deformities, Poland became the heart of Europe’s abortion controversy, enacting a near-total ban. Only cases of rape or incest, or if the woman’s life is in danger, are exceptions to the choice. Last year, the death of a 30-year-old woman triggered widespread protests across Poland, as well as disapproval from the European Parliament, after a lawyer representing her family claimed that a decision not to perform a potentially life-saving abortion was linked to Polish laws.

The ongoing war in Ukraine and subsequent refugee crisis has drawn further attention to Poland’s strict abortion laws. Amnesty International also has warned that one of the most serious aspects of the situation of Ukrainian refugee women is access to abortion, given that ‘in most states hosting refugee women, legislation on the termination of pregnancy is restrictive, particularly in Poland’. Oleksandra Matviichuk, the civil rights lawyer in charge of the Ukrainian Civil Liberties Department, denounced the Polish policy on Twitter, citing that Ukrainian women who were raped by Russian soldiers and fled to Poland cannot have abortions. Abortion in Poland is still allowed in case of rape, but in this regard Matviichuck writes that “no criminal proceedings have been opened yet”; these refugee women cannot get an abortion because there is not a criminal case in the Polish court. 

As allegations of rape following the Russian invasion continue to mount, efforts are underway to get emergency contraception into Ukrainian hospitals as soon as possible. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) has donated 2,880 packets of the medication, popularly known as the morning-after pill, to Ukraine, while a network of volunteers across Europe has been collecting contributions of the medication and distributing it to hospitals. However, providing the women within the Polish border with the right medication has been more challenging. According to Julia Taft, of IPPF, strict medication controls in some countries along Ukraine’s border, such as Romania, Hungary, and Poland, have made pill procurement more expensive, difficult, and time consuming. 

Final remarks 

Those fleeing war are entitled to understanding and empathy, but what happens when refugees, and even other citizens of certain nations, want to exercise their fundamental right to choose? As we have seen in the cases of Italy and Spain, the procedure is legal, but the narrative condemns women who choose abortion. As a result, although access to abortion is a right protected by law, in practice, it is difficult to find a provider and prohibitively expensive. As in the current case of refugee women in Poland, regressive abortion policies have consequences for the most marginalised, and it is a global problem. The United States is one step away from backtracking nearly 50 years of progress on women’s health and reproductive rights. The decision leaked by the Supreme Court represents a political danger that would threaten  millions of women and their right to choose in more than half of the American states.

By Arianna Tanganelli,

Postgraduate student in MSc European Politics and Policy, specialised in Foreign Affairs and International Relations. Main areas: human rights, democracy and EU-China relations.

You May Also Like

Sexism: Alive and Well?

Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors…

The Principles of Representation

Political leadership in the United Kingdom is undergoing a rapid diversification unprecedented in its history. In the past year alone, the UK has seen its third female Prime Minister, its…