The politics of abortion in Europe is both more complex and more nuanced than on this side of the Atlantic.
Some things never go quite according to plan. Two years ago the British Parliament launched an inquiry into scientific developments relating to abortion. It was chaired by Evan Harris, one of the most aggressively pro-abortion politicians in the House of Commons. A string of witnesses drawn from providers and advocates of abortion argued day after day that there was no scientific case (moral aspects were purposely excluded) to marginally reduce the legal upper time limit for abortions from 24 weeks of gestation, as some politicians and academics had been proposing. Pro-life groups began to complain of a stitch-up, a fait accompli.
Then Dr. Vincent Argent, a former director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the organization that carries out more than a quarter of some 200,000 annual abortions in Britain, shocked both sides with his submission.
He said the existing limit was too high for the overwhelming majority of abortions and that it should be lowered to 16 weeks. Public opinion was growing strongly against the late-term abortions of healthy babies, he said, and the law needed to be tightened up.
Here was one of the most senior abortion practitioners in Britain proposing what he called a “pragmatic middle-of-the-road view” to resolve an issue that remains far from being politically settled. Although he was ultimately ignored by the pro-abortion contingent within Parliament, his views are shared by many other doctors who perform abortions, including Stuart Campbell, whose pioneering scan of a 12-week fetus apparently sucking its thumb was the spark that reignited a recent British debate on abortion.
Argent’s intervention dismayed hard-core supporters of abortion, but it encouraged pro-life activists who felt, at last, that opinion polls consistently revealing public unease over high abortion rates and late abortions were having an impact.
“We are slowly awakening the conscience of Europe to the humanity of the unborn child, not least thanks to the wonders of new ultrasound technology,” explains Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a British pro-life lobby group.
“Abortion of viable babies for whatever reason is at last being seen as a barbarism unworthy of any civilized society,” Quintavalle says. “I am convinced that the majority of Europeans are hugely uncomfortable about late abortions and are ready for significant change at least in that category. The lives saved will be sadly few when compared to the millions performed in the first trimester, but it is a symbolic change of attitude nevertheless, showing that at last the tide is turning.”
Many pro-life activists in Europe do not realistically expect to abolish abortion in the foreseeable future. They do, however, see the abolition of late abortions as an achievable goal and also want to address the causes of abortion in the hope that they can help bring figures down.
One size doesn’t fit all
The European situation regarding abortion varies widely, of course, with 27 member states in the European Union each able to decide their abortion laws on a national basis. Few regard abortion as a “right” in the way established in the United States by Roe v. Wade, and in some E.U. countries the procedure remains technically illegal unless certain conditions are satisfied.
In Germany and France, for instance, abortions must be carried out within 12 weeks unless there are extraordinary circumstances. The Scandinavian countries, along with Britain, generally do not tolerate abortions of healthy fetuses beyond the point at which they are “viable,” when they have a chance of survival outside of the womb-usually by 24 weeks.
Abortions are forbidden at any stage in Andorra, the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, Monaco, and Poland except in such situations as a grave threat to the life of the mother. There is a total ban in Malta.
Because abortion in Europe was not a constitutional right conferred by a court, it can be-and is-more tightly regulated than it is in the United States. It is also often publicly funded and is one of the most commonly performed procedures in Britain’s National Health Service.
Yet in spite of the tighter regulations, abortion rates across Europe are comparable to those in the United States. Recent figures from the Guttmacher Institute, an advocate for reproductive and sexual health initiatives, revealed that in 2005 there were 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women in the United States, a figure slightly higher than the 18.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the European Union in 2006.
According to United Nations statistics, in countries where abortion is generally legal, the E.U.’s rate ranges on the low end from about 10.4 per 1,000 women in the Netherlands (2004) to about 17 in England (2005) and France (2002) to 33.3 in Estonia (2005), which has the highest rate. Taken together, the rates translate to about one in every five pregnancies.
Europe’s top aborting countries-France and Britain with the highest total numbers, followed by Romania, Italy, Germany, and Spain-generally restrict access to abortion at some point in the pregnancy, indicating a failure of upper time limits to lower overall abortion rates. This is because, like the United States, about 90 percent of abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with less than 5 percent after 16 weeks.
One of the unintended consequences of such limits, however, is that they have exerted a strong influence on the tone of the abortion debate in Europe. Upper limits perhaps confer respectability on the practice of abortion that contributes to settling the issue in some countries.
Argent, the British abortion practitioner, no doubt understands that abortion advocates have little to fear from a reduction in upper time limits: There is less talk of “baby-killing” when a society does not condone the abortion of fetuses who are recognizably human, even if the practice of early abortion continues on an industrial scale.
Such restrictions have meant that abortion politics are less heated and intense than in the United States. To Europeans the debate in the United States sounds shrill, hyperbolic, and hysterical; it’s more focused but more violent. This is used against the pro-life movement in Europe, though shootings at abortion clinics here are unknown. Pro-life activism is dominated by Catholics, and violent direct action is universally rejected.
Such restrictions, however, also make it harder to change the law. Where abortion laws are accepted by the majority as reasonable, efforts by conscientious Catholics to further prohibit abortion or to build a “culture of life” seem fanciful.
The reaction to this challenge has been characterized by a rise in stubborn, pro-life militancy on the one hand, with abortion becoming more of a political issue than it was 30 years ago, while on the other hand some Catholics are questioning whether a political solution can ever be achieved. This group seeks to express their pro-life principles in a different way.
Those with the latter view include Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian Christian Democrat politician whose Catholic credentials were seen as impeccable after he was vetoed from a post of European Commissioner for saying he thought that homosexual sexual acts were “sinful.”
He told Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, in July 2009 that he no longer believes abortion should be illegal. “We should instead support the mother, work to free her,” he said. “The more free she is, the harder it will be for her to give up [abort] her child.”
Blurring the line
No other Catholic leader, however, has been as bold as Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the emeritus archbishop of Milan, who in 2006 told L’Espresso magazine that although abortion “always represents a failure,” it was “a good thing” that legal abortion should contribute to eliminating backstreet abortions in which women are seriously injured or killed.
The cardinal is by no means representative of European church leadership. But there have been times when European bishops, even acting collegially, have demonstrated a desire for accommodation to a pro-abortion legal framework to ameliorate the worst effects of abortion.
An example of this was the decision of the German bishops to join a state plan to counsel women with unwanted pregnancies following reforms of national abortion laws in 1995. Under the new regulations women needed a certificate from counselors to obtain an abortion, and the bishops felt that church involvement meant it could “be present where people’s lives are most threatened, with the women who are uncertain whether they should have their child or not.” From 20,000 counseling sessions in 1997 about 5,000 women decided to keep their babies.
Then in 2000 Pope John Paul II ordered the German bishops to withdraw from the system “for the sake of the clarity and unity of the witness for life of the Catholic Church,” a decision that provoked uproar among German Catholics, including some bishops. Bishop Franz Kamphaus of Limburg threatened to resign, saying he could not accept the order in good conscience. He was given extra time by the Vatican to comply with the ruling, which was finally enforced in his diocese in 2005.
The bishops of England and Wales, where there is an active and well-organized pro-life movement, have always been keen to steer the faithful away from the single-issue abortion politics that are so prevalent in the United States.
In 1996, a year after the publication of Evangelium Vitae, the papal encyclical condemning abortion, the English bishops exhorted Catholics to question political candidates not just about the right to life but also about a range of issues from concern for the environment to support for the trade unions and standards in the media.
“A general election must never be confused with a single-issue referendum,” the bishops said in The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching, a statement issued in advance of the 1997 elections that swept Tony Blair’s overtly pro-abortion Labor Party to power in a landslide victory.
Like their French counterparts, who in 2000 issued the statement, Respecting Human Life and Its Earliest Beginnings, the English bishops much prefer to limit their public interventions to appeals to conscience.
Such examples should not be taken as a sign that the church in Europe has given up the fight, but rather that in local situations bishops sometimes believe that there are better, more nuanced ways to approach an intractable problem. Indeed, there are also signs that the church in Europe is becoming more vocal and active in its defense of life.
Take Italy, for instance, where pro-life activism might have contributed to a continual fall in abortion rates from a 1983 high of 240,000 to roughly 130,000 a year, showing a similar pattern of decline to that in the United States, where numbers have also dropped in the same period after reaching a high in the early 1980s.
When abortion was legalized in Italy in 1978, those Catholic politicians who voted for the law were not threatened with excommunication by either the local bishops (though some expressed disappointment) or by Pope Paul VI. Yet as the years have passed, the issue has grown more controversial. The bishops now vociferously oppose abortion, condemning the legalization of the RU-486 “abortion pill” in the summer of 2009, while in the Milan region local government officials have offered space in cemeteries for burials of aborted fetuses and, in one case, capped the upper time limit for abortions.
Oddly, Spain has uniquely witnessed a doubling of the numbers of abortions within the past decade alone. This has not troubled the government, which is enacting legislation to make access to abortion easier. But it has angered the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who have repeatedly taken to the streets supporting the right to life.
In September 2009 some gynecologists expressed a willingness to go to jail in defiance of proposed legislation to strip them of their right to conscientiously object to performing abortions. The attempt to deregulate abortion has created a dangerous political rift. It has also inspired the bishops to become increasingly outspoken in their defense of life.
In Ireland opposition to abortion remains robust and featured strongly in the “no” campaign against the E.U. Lisbon Treaty amid fears that closer European integration would result in the European courts having greater powers over national legislatures in deciding such issues.
Irish pro-life activists might have a point: The Council of Europe, set up in 1949 to harmonize human rights, democracy, and the rule of law across the continent, primarily through its conventions and the European Court of Human Rights, supports the view of abortion as a universal “reproductive right.” But all the indications suggest that if there was anything that could tip Europe towards U.S.-style anti-abortion militancy, it would be the imposition of a “right” to abortion up to birth.
It may even lead to the fragmentation of the European Union as it would be unacceptable to many member states. Malta would reject it instantly as would Poland, the one country where the bishops have implied that they might refuse Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
It is evident that E.U. pro-life activism is taking root precisely where the “culture of death” is most aggressive and where laws are most permissive. If it were not for such resistance, an already disturbing situation could turn much worse, demonstrated by plans to allow abortion clinics to advertise on British television in 2009.
An unprecedented outcry led to the ads being shelved indefinitely. It is hard to talk about ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies when those profiting from abortions are seeking new means to drum up business.
The deliberate creation of a market demand for abortions also contrasts with some of the most impressive work in the service of life, much of which is performed by Catholics at the grassroots level. A pioneer in this regard is Jack Scarisbrick, a Catholic whose LIFE organization has placed the virtue of charity at the heart of a U.K. network of pregnancy counselors; housing for destitute mothers; hospices for dying children; education services, including classes in natural family planning; and media work.
“Some pro-lifers are obsessed with only the child while the pro-choice movement is concerned only about the rights of the woman,” says Scarisbrick. “The great strength of LIFE is that we are both pro-woman and pro-child. There is nothing in America, we believe, that achieves the balance of speaking out against the wrong-doing and helping people to avoid that wrongdoing, to roll up their sleeves, and to do something positive.
“We say, ‘Yes abortion is wrong,’ but we understand how any unwanted pregnancy can seem like a disaster initially and how people can be stampeded into doing something which in their hearts they know is wrong. We can offer women a positive alternative, we can help, we can give them a chance to cool down and give them the necessary support and accommodation.”
He adds: “Any civilized society knows that what is bloody and destructive is not a good thing. Our way is positive, life-affirming, and life-embracing.”
Working to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the reasons why women seek abortions is a noble objective in political environments resistant to change. So, too, is ending late-term abortions that are both cruel and unnecessary.
President Barack Obama has suggested the former may be a way forward, an alternative to a deadly impasse of death and division. It remains to be seen if such an objective can be achieved on either side of the Atlantic.
This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75. No. 1, pages 20-23).
Image: Tom Wright