In Europe and in the US, the Debate on Abortion Explodes Again

In a move described as “a real plus for women”, on 7th June, the French Senate voted to extend abortion rights in France. The new law proposed legalising abortion on request up to 14 weeks into pregnancy, rather than 12, to support women living in France’s “medical deserts” with limited access to health care.

Around 40% of France’s maternity wards have closed in the past 25 years, which means a 2-hour car ride in some rural areas to access basic medical care. And once a woman does access a maternity clinic, there’s no guarantee she’ll be granted an abortion. A “conscience clause” in French law allows doctors to refuse to perform the procedure on moral grounds. This contributes to 3000 – 5000 French women having to travel abroad for late-stage abortions every year, according to a 2013 government study.

The new law would address this lack of access by extending abortion times and formalising a list of doctors who had refused to perform abortions in the past.

But, on June 11th, four days after the bill had passed through the Senate, Republican politicians demanded a re-vote and the new law was overturned. “Even if we know that the majority of abortions happen before 10 weeks, thousands of women have difficulty accessing abortion services,” Véronique Séhier co-president of Planning Familial in France told France 24. Asked about the overturned law she said, “we’re not particularly surprised, but we are very disappointed.”

In the current global context, fighting to expand abortion laws may seem like a privilege. Attitudes towards abortion provision in the western world seem to be in flux with many women now fighting to preserve the rights they have. In Norway in 2018 politicians from leading parties debated tightening the country’s abortion laws, resulting in mass street protests. In Germany, two gynaecologists were recently fined for “promoting abortion” by providing a description of the medical procedure on their website. It’s a story echoed across the Atlantic, in America.

While abortion is a constitutional right throughout the US under Roe v. Wade, regulators in some states are working to restrict women’s access to the procedure.

Heartbeat bills which cap the legal limit for abortions at six weeks, the moment a foetal heartbeat can be detected, are coming into effect in many states. As many women do not realise they are pregnant at this stage, these laws are widely considered unconstitutional, which for anti-abortion politicians, is part of their appeal. Whether or not they pass, proponents hope a cumulation of heartbeat bills will be the tinder that sparks legal debate in the US Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority and the authority to change federal laws.

Restrictions on abortion laws have so far been passed in nine US states, with the most extreme being in Alabama where it’s been made illegal in all but the most extreme cases where health or life is at risk.

As he signed the bill into law on May 15, Alabaman politician Kay Ivey stated “Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973. The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.”

One of the only places in the western world that has stricter abortion laws than Alabama is Northern Ireland. Although it’s part of the UK, where abortion on request has been legal since the ’60s, not only is abortion illegal in Northern Ireland, but women who terminate their pregnancies face lifetime imprisonment.

There are, however, calls for this to change. In 2015, the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland’s law on abortion was so severe that it was not compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. A 2018 poll found that 75% of people in Northern Ireland want the abortion law to change, and 65% agree that abortion should not be a crime.

Hopes for change are bolstered by a successful campaign to change abortion laws south of the Irish border. On 25th May 2018, Ireland voted to overturn its own severe abortion law, the 8th Amendment, which made abortion illegal even in cases of rape, risk to women’s health or fatal foetal abnormality. One of the catalysts for the referendum in Ireland was the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, in 2012. She was refused an abortion while miscarrying at Galway University hospital on the grounds that there was no risk to her life, only her health. She later died of complications caused by a related infection.

As the referendum results were announced revealing vast majority in favour of relaxing Ireland’s abortion laws, crowds in Dublin were overcome with emotion and chanted Savita’s name.

Influential campaigner Orla O’Connor told the press, “this is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally. After the trauma that the 8th has caused, the horror of the 8th, this vote is about a rejection of an Ireland that treated women as second class citizens. This is about women’s equality.”