Sophie van den Elzen

Recurrent images of the masses of women filing through the streets of Europe’s capitals remind us that the conflict over whether to prioritize women’s right to choose or a fetus’ right to live is one at the heart of many major social debates. Not only does it chafe at the junctions between social progress and tradition, individualism and normativity, encouraging women to exercise their right to self-determination and protecting sacralized family life; the issue also serves as a pin on which politicians hang the canvases they paint of ‘their’ nations as either traditionalist religious countries respectful of their past (such as Poland under PiS) or liberal countries  pragmatically looking to the future (e.g. The Netherlands under VVD).

With Europe’s eyes glued to those countries with the most ostensibly hostile public opinions to the right to legal abortion, it is perhaps also important to glance over at those in which a woman’s right of choice is most firmly established.

Image from the pro-choice Czarny Protest in Poland

In many European countries, women can choose to abort for non-medical reasons for up to roughly 12 weeks of pregnancy (the first trimester). Three countries have significantly longer periods in which this option is available: Sweden (up to 18 weeks on request, and 22 in case of “strong reasons”),The Netherlands (up to 24 weeks with a compulsory 5-day waiting period), and the UK (up to 24 weeks). 24 weeks is generally taken to be the point of “fetal viability”, where the fetus could potentially survive outside the womb.

A closer look at the constructions through which these countries came to facilitate the right to choice reveals that what is often taken  to be a contentiously amoral emancipatory decision, by those who oppose abortion, is in fact a careful balancing act of choice and life, in pursuit of a “common good” – with the expected paradoxes in tow.

The UK granted access to legal abortion in 1967, when it brought into effect a law which allowed the practice if a woman obtained consent from two doctors (Northern Ireland is exempt from this act and has a singularly strict restrictions on abortion). This allowed for exemptions from the 1861 Offences against the Person Act which criminalized self-induced abortions with a potential life sentence. This act has been left in force to this day, and, with the broader availability of abortion-inducing medication, has gotten its teeth back, as it allows women to be arrested and prosecuted for purchasing abortion medication online. In 2016, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service launched a campaign, “We Trust Women,” to both abolish the 1861 Act in order to eliminate this contradiction between the two laws and to remove the requirement for women to attend multiple medical appointments to obtain two independent consents.

A pro-choice demonstration in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK without abortion. Image Source: Getty Images

Abortion was banned in The Netherlands in 1911 as part of  a “decency law” (zedelijkheidswet) that also put restrictions on homosexual relationships and illegalized brothels, as well as the selling of pornography and playing ball games on Sundays. After several years of quiet political toleration of hospitals performing abortions from the end of the 1960s onwards, the first abortion clinic opened, illegally but publically, in 1971, with the aim of offering the service so that Dutch women no longer had to travel to the UK. It was not until 1984, however, that toleration would make way for legalization with the installation of the narrowly-passed WAZ (Wet Afbreking Zwangerschap, or Law Regarding the Termination of Pregnancy). The new law served to please both sides in what had become a virulent public debate by protecting doctors who performed an abortion if the woman declares she is in dire distress, while at the same time enshrining the protection of fetuses’ potential life.

A Dutch pro-choice demonstration: ‘Baas in Eigen Buik’ or ‘Boss in my belly’

Because of this dual aim, the WAZ has been under steady critique from both conservatives and progressives, among whom the organization Women on Waves (WoW) is the most notable. Women on Waves, founded by a Dutch doctor in 1999, actively promotes women’s right to perform medical abortions themselves, without any third-party consent. WoW employs several different tactics aimed at providing access to abortion as well as raising public awareness for the issue. They organize  safe abortion hotlines providing  medical information on how to take the drug misoprostol to induce abortions, perform abortions in international waters for women from countries where it is strictly illegal, and recently  made international headlines by delivering abortion medication across borders by drone.

Women on Waves are not only internationally active, but also take a strong stance against what they consider to a restrictive abortion policy in the Netherlands, accepting only full affirmation of women’s autonomous and immediate right of choice.

A Women on Waves activist takes a photo of the WoW boat.

In 2008, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on all member states to decriminalize abortion, as it was their contention that criminalization did not result in fewer abortions but only heightened the number of traumatic procedures. Even though in the author’s opinion,  providing legal access to safe abortion for all women is both the only morally valid political stance in a society which recognizes women’s right to self-determination and right to their own bodies, as well as of the highest priority to facilitate equal opportunities for both sexes in Europe, the move of the abortion debate from the national to the international level has brought dangers as well as opportunities.

International attention focuses on Polish and Irish politics when conservative parties link the issue to national identity, usually by referring to religion and family politics. In countries more open to abortion such as The Netherlands, however, this link is routinely made as well. Christian parties, unsurprisingly, link their opposition to the issue to Christian national values, but there are also more complicated internationally-oriented responses. In 2013, the Dutch  representative of the eurosceptic Socialist Party in the European Parliament, for instance, though the party being in favor of progressive abortion policy, voted against a report which addressed the issue because he considered it to be outside of the EU purview as a strictly national issue. Conversely, a member of the Dutch Labour Party recently called to formally address Poland over the PiS government’s intended law to restrict abortion, an intervention which she considered as a “duty”, being a fellow member of the EU.

Recently abortion has become a topic of discussion in the Parliament of the European Union.

Against the shifting backdrops of the globalizing world, the abortion debate can no longer be summarized as a moral dispute between the right to choice and the right to life. Instead, it has become a stake in the battle over national identity that is happening in many nations responding to globalization. Looking at what are, for now, the EU Member States in which abortion is most freely available, it is clear that women’s right to choose is all but firmly established. So long as abortion is regarded as a compromise for the “common good”,  rather than as a natural feature of the right of choice, it is too fragile to become stake in such a game; especially now that  both what is “good” and what is “common” are open to debate.

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