The US Supreme Court's overturning of the constitutional right to abortion is being felt in countries across the world, where people worldwide have had an incredibly emotional response. In a 6-3 ruling of a mostly conservative Supreme Court on 24th June, the court found that there was no constitutional right to abortion, turning the decision of whether to allow abortions or not up to the individual federal states. This went against the historic Roe v. Wade ruling nearly 50 years ago that legalised abortions. Millions of American women are now expected to lose access to abortions.
Activists on both sides of the debate have been incredibly vocal with their responses. In America, more conservative and religious states have already embraced the new ruling. 26 states could further restrict abortion access, including 10 states that have passed so-called trigger laws, which have effectively introduced bans immediately.
On the other side, there has been a wave of protests across the US, led by pro-abortion activists and organisations. In Arizona, law enforcement officials were captured on video deploying tear gas to clear out an estimated 7,000 protesters gathered outside the state Capitol in Phoenix.
These strong reactions have been reflected across the world. It is interesting how European countries that would traditionally have quite a conservative and mostly Catholic reputation have reacted, especially since they are in stark comparison with other major European superpowers.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected. I express my solidarity with the women whose freedoms are today challenged by the Supreme Court of the United States of America”. His government has already declared its support for a new bill that would make abortion a constitutional right in France. But how do the following European countries stack up in comparison?
In 1978, five years after Roe v Wade, Italy legalised abortion with Law 194. According to this law, all women are eligible to request an abortion during the first 90 days of gestation for health, economic, social, or familial reasons, and the abortion is performed free of charge within the national health system in a public hospital or a private practice approved by the Italian health authority.
However, there have been problems with this since the law was introduced as it also allows doctors to be conscientious objectors and refuse to give women the medical certificate they need to officially get an abortion. Today in Italy, 68.4 per cent of gynaecologists declare themselves conscientious objectors. Law 194 also does not enshrine abortion as a legal right.
Despite this, It is not the same polemic political issue in Italy today as in the US but the rise of a new hard-right conservative politics over the last few years has brought it back into focus.
“The overturning of Roe v Wade gives us great enthusiasm and hope,” said Marina Casini, president of the Movimento per la Vita, an organisation set up originally in opposition to the passing of Law 194. “American pro-lifers teach us that a good strategy, long and patient, can bring historical results like this one.”
Lega Nord, Italy’s largest far-right party, has also seen its members speak out in favour of Roe v Wade being overturned. Simone Pillon, a Lega member of parliament for Lombardy, posted on his Facebook page after the Roe v Wade verdict that we “must bring to Europe and Italy the light breeze of the right to life of every child”.
However, his party leader, Matteo Salvini, was notably more nuanced, making headlines when he said that he believed "in the value of life from beginning to end, but when it comes to pregnancy, the last word belongs to the woman" - perhaps a recognition that the majority of Italians today say they still support the right to abort.
High-profile government figures and activists reflect this viewpoint as well. Elena Bonetti, the Minister for Gender Equality and Family, criticised what she defines as “a ruling which leaves us astonished, and which wounds women’s rights and dignity.” Emma Bonino, a leftist former foreign minister who helped pass Law 194, said it showed the risk in Italy of regressing socially and of "losing achievements that had seemed permanent."
The Republic of Ireland is the most recent European member state to legalise abortion, having done so by referendum in 2018. So long as a 3-day waiting period has elapsed, free abortion is permitted to residents of Ireland during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy and later if the pregnant woman's life or health is at risk or in the cases of a fatal foetal abnormality. Abortion remains criminalised in all other cases (any criminal provisions don’t apply to a woman in respect of her own pregnancy).
The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 has flaws and, just like Italy’s Law 194, allows for conscientious objection (if a doctor objects to referring a woman for an abortion, they must refer her to a doctor who will, according to the 2018 law). According to a report done by the World Health Organisation to research the implementation of abortions in Irish hospitals, at least nine of Ireland’s 19 maternity units are still not providing abortion services due to midwives, nurses, doctors or general hospital staff being conscientious objectors and therefore preventing woman access to an abortion procedure.
Despite this, the abortion referendum was seen as a key move forward for a society that had long been influenced by the power of the Catholic Church in Irish life, as the Irish people had voted with a 66% majority to remove the amendment in the Irish constitution that illegalised abortion. However, possibly due to how new the law is, it is still a major topic in Irish society and there are still prominent activists on both sides who still campaign and both have spoken out in response to Roe v. Wade.
Cora Sherlock, a long-time activist with the Pro-Life Campaign, tweeted in the aftermath: “The overturning of Roe v Wade signals the beginning of the end of abortion worldwide. The momentum will eventually reach Ireland, it’s only a matter of time.” The Pro-Life Campaign still organises annual rallies and protests since the 2018 referendum.
It is worth noting that the pro-life movement in Ireland does not have the backing of any major political party or even senior figures of the Catholic Church, who have surprisingly kept away from recent anti-abortion activity. The Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, reassured the Irish press that the overturning of abortions in America would “have zero impact on the provision of healthcare services in Ireland.”
Leader of the Labour Party, Ivana Bacik, described the decision to overturn Roe v Wade as a "shocking step backwards" for women's rights in the US, adding that it “should strengthen our resolve to ensure effective access to safe, legal terminations of pregnancy” in Ireland.
Poland is one of the few European countries that have reduced their abortion access in recent years. For nearly three decades, abortion in the predominately Catholic country had only been allowed under three circumstances: if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest; if the mother's life was at risk, or in the case of fetal abnormalities.
But in 2020, the Polish Constitutional Court removed the foetal abnormalities exception. This accounted for 98% of all known legal abortions carried out in Poland in 2019, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Health. The decision of the Court, dominated by judges associated with the ruling Law and Justice Party (Prawo I Sprawiedliwość in Polish), made the country’s abortion law one of the strictest in Europe.
Since then, abortion in Poland has been legal only in cases of danger to the life and health of the mother and in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape up to 22 weeks gestation. As well as that, Polish doctors face up to three years in prison if the government finds they performed an abortion hastily or without sufficient justification.
Just last month, the Law and Justice Party were part of the right-wing members of parliament to reject a bill to legalise abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy and to allow abortions to be extended to all persons over 13 years of age. Out of 460 members of the Polish parliament, 265 voted against the proposed bill, 175 voted in favour, and four abstained.
Antonina Lewandowska, a spokesperson for the Foundation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), Poland's oldest family planning and pro-choice organization, said that she sympathizes with Americans who fear the worst after the Roe v. Wade ruling. “You can look at us as a warning. Or you can look at us as a guide”, she said in a radio interview, referencing the work Federa do through loopholes in the law to help women in Poland access abortion. “There is a saying in Polish - if I cannot get through the door, I will get in through the window. And that's what we are doing”.
The small Mediterranean island off Sicily has even stricter abortion laws than Poland, being the only country in the European Union that completely bans abortion. The law considers no exceptions, such as the pregnancy being the consequence of rape or incest, or if the woman’s life is at risk. It is a crime punishable by 3 years in prison. An estimated 300-400 Maltese women travel abroad every year to get an abortion, usually to the UK, and when travel was prohibited during the covid pandemic lockdowns, reports of Maltese women ordering abortion pills online emerged.
Just this week, an American woman holidaying in Malta with her husband had to be airlifted from the Mater Dei hospital to Spain for an abortion when she suddenly started bleeding heavily and was told that her pregnancy was no longer viable. She was told there was nothing the Maltese medics could do as long as the foetus had a heartbeat because of Maltese law. Due to the potentially fatal risk caused to her life, the couple planned to sue the Maltese government.
In 2019, an organisation called Doctors for Choice was set up in Malta by medical professionals to campaign for legislative change, as well as improve sex education and access to contraception. While Doctors For Choice had around 60 members as of 2021, Doctors For Life, a rival group, had over 670 members.
Marlene Farrugia, founder and former leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, spoke to the Times of Malta, saying that “many Maltese and Gozitans do not understand what is going on in America right now because we didn’t and still don’t talk about women’s reproductive rights and abortion”.
To indicate just how complicated an issue abortion is in Malta, Farrugia herself has taken anti-abortion stances throughout her political career but in 2021, she presented a bill to parliament proposing the decriminalisation of abortion in Malta, arguing that "being pro-life should not be perceived as conflicting with women’s self-determination and reproductive rights". This bill was ultimately not passed by parliament.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the stripping of abortion rights in the US has encouraged anti-abortion activists in Malta. The chairperson of a Maltese anti-abortion campaign group called Life Network Foundation, Miriam Sciberras, said the lobby is very encouraged by the development, saying that “anytime there is a push towards protecting life, we see this is as an encouragement to the Maltese pro-life movement. It further empowers us to be a voice in Europe, a Europe which is going the opposite way in the protection of life. [...] What is happening in America makes us more resolute to provide support to all women who are facing unexpected pregnancies.”
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