Because of the Irish referendum earlier this year on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which recognized the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child, the Irish pro-life movement became somewhat known around the world. Much lesser known are the pro-life movements in other European countries.
As part of a project for Campaign Life Coalition, I had the opportunity to communicate with a handful of representatives from pro-life organizations across Europe on the abortion laws in their respective countries, their strategies, and on their positions on gestational limits.
The European pro-life movement generally faces less legally permissive abortion regimes than in much of North America, as most countries operate with limits after a certain point in pregnancy.
Since 1990, the United Kingdom, for instance, has permitted abortion up to 24 weeks. Previously, it was permitted up to 28 weeks. Some pro-life organizations, such as the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), oppose gestational limits. In a letter to MP Fiona Bruce, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, regarding the Inquiry into Fetal Development and Activity, David Albert Jones and Helen Watt of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre argued against a gestational limit, urging the Committee of Inquiry to “avoid the danger of effectively encouraging social acceptance of ‘early’ abortion, obscuring the fundamental ethical principle of respect for every human life however young or old, while adding to the pressures on women and on healthcare professionals to act unjustly with ever greater haste.” John Smeaton, the chief executive of SPUC, calls gestational laws “intrinsically unjust legislation” and said, “SPUC and the pro-life movement have made far more progress since the Society has sought to adopt an ethically correct approach to legislation.”
Other organizations like United Kingdom-based charity Life support gestational limits. Despite the United Kingdom seeing a jump from 117 reported abortions past 24 weeks in 2002 to 190 in 2013, and 226 abortions at or after 24 weeks in 2016, Peter Sullivan, former education officer for the charity, believes that still, “hundreds” more babies are saved because of the gestational limit. He also fears that some abortionists may not apply anaesthesia to babies being aborted, and thus, after 20 weeks or so, they may feel the pain of the procedure.
Pro-life MPs in the United Kingdom, led by the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, have been trying to pass incremental legislation and in 2008, unsuccessfully tried to reduce the gestational limit. Unlike Canada, wherein the only pro-life MPs belong to the Conservative party, the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group includes Conservative, Labour, Democratic Unionist, and crossbench MPs and officers. According to a 2017 New Statesmanarticle by Stephen Bush, “In recent years, Westminster’s pro-lifers have changed their tactics, moving from outright opposition, to attempts to water down reproductive rights rather than trying to overturn them en bloc.” According to Sullivan, pro-lifers are also fighting the official decriminalization of abortion (as currently women need the permission of two doctors to get an abortion). Many other European countries similarly list abortion as a crime and just detail the exemptions to the law. Pro-lifers will likely also have a tough battle ahead of them as Ireland’s repeal of their Eighth Amendment has prompted pro-choice efforts to expand abortion in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains mostly illegal.
Though proponents of gestational limits hope that they will gradually be moved to earlier in pregnancy, as British pro-lifers managed to do nearly three decades ago, France pushed their gestational limit from ten weeks to 12 weeks in 2001. French pro-life organization Alliance VITA indicated they are not working on changing the limit, in part because one of the major problems that they have identified in their country is chemical abortions, which are carried out in the first couple months of pregnancy, and accounted for 64 per cent of all abortions in France in 2016. According to Caroline Roux, assistant chief delegate for Alliance VITA and director for VITA International, pregnant women feel rushed into aborting prior to seven weeks, so that they can have a chemical abortion instead of a surgical one. Alliance VITA is focused on preventative measures. They run a helpline called “SOS Baby,” for any maternity-related issues, including infertility, miscarriages, unplanned pregnancies, diagnoses of disabilities in children, and post-abortion healing.
Cornelia Kaminski of Bundesverband Lebensrecht(BVL), an association of German pro-life groups that organizes an annual March for Life in Berlin, said that a positive effect of Germany’s gestational limit is that after the 12-week mark women who do not want to abort, “can tell all those who try to pressure them into having an abortion that it is henceforth illegal to abort a baby.” However, Kaminski also admits that those who are intent on aborting can get around the gestational limit, as some doctors will illegally commit abortions until the 14thweek, and the pregnant woman can claim that she is incapable of caring for a child due to the impact it would have on her psychological health (a claim often made if the child has special needs).
Technically, all abortions are illegal in Germany, as Germany’s Constitutional Court twice ruled that their constitution protects the unborn child’s right to life. The law, however, lays out that an abortion won’t be punished if it is carried out within the first 12 weeks by a doctor, and the woman receives counselling at least three days prior. It is also illegal to advertise abortion, but after gynaecologist Kristina Hänel was fined for doing so, abortion advocates in the country began pushing for a change in this law, and so pro-lifers have been fighting to keep it.
While Germany’s abortion rate has been relatively low, Russia is known for having the highest abortion rate in Europe, though it is decreasing. Archpriest Maxim Obukhov, head of the Orthodox medical and educational center “Life,” has been referred to as the “father of the pro-life movement in Russia.” He says his organization has done a lot to educate the public since 1993, including distributing “millions” of copies of pro-life material. They hope to have crisis pregnancy centres across the country and to obligate women to participate in counselling prior to obtaining abortions. They also want to defund abortion. Obukhov says he supports “any legislative actions for defence of life,” even just symbolic ones, because of their educative effect on the public.
Even smaller countries have active pro-life movements. Fr. Robertas Skrinskas of Pro Vita in Lithuania indicated that a political party called Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance, representing the Polish minority in the country — has sought to ban abortions almost completely, though Skrinskas himself is open to restricting abortion gestationally. Maria Raučinová of Fórum životais as well, and her country of Slovakia also has a pro-life wing attempting to ban abortion, and a second “less radical” wing focused on education and improving the adoption system and services for pregnant women.
Kateřina Ucháčová of Hnutí Pro životČR, the largest pro-life organization in the Czech Republic, explained that pro-lifers there are focused on increasing support for parents and awareness of the father’s responsibility, and promoting counselling for women in crisis pregnancies. She says that any legislative action must be coupled with efforts to address “the root cause of the problem,” adding that “when the father of the baby stands by and supports the mother, she does not ask to have an abortion in (the) majority of cases.”
“Progressive” countries like the Netherlands and Denmark also do not lack pro-life movements. Ellen Højlund Wibe, national secretary of Retten til Livin Denmark, expressed similar thoughts on gestational limits as BVL’s Kaminski. She said that most requests for late-term abortions (post-12 weeks) are approved and women unsure about whether to abort might feel rushed into one because of the limit, but exterior pressure to abort the child ceases after the first trimester. Though Retten til Livsupports political initiatives to move the gestational limit earlier, Højlund Wibe admits that “it (has been) very long ago (since they) have seen such an initiative in Danish politics, having had no Christian party represented for several years in the Danish Parliament.” The Danish pro-life movement is thus concentrated on trying to bring about an attitudinal change in their society. Højlund Wibe said they use “gray zones” in the law to attract attention, like putting up 20,000 stickers with messages “from” the unborn in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, in the middle of the night.
The Netherlands is one of the leading countries pushing abortion on developing countries and raising concern over “overpopulation.” Women on Waves, for instance, is a Dutch NGO which commissions a ship aboard which they provide abortions to women from countries restricting the practice. The Netherlands itself permits abortion until the unborn child reaches viability, but many children with disabilities are aborted after this point, though this occurrence is under- or misreported. Some disabled children are also killed after birth under the Groningen Protocol, which essentially allows child euthanasia to go unpunished. In response to being asked what the pro-life movement is focusing on right now, Salome Irene van der Wende, national coordinator for Silent No More Awareness Holland, and director of Save the 1 Europe, indicated that they introduced the Abortion Pill Reversal last year.
As abortion proponents in Europe gain traction, the pro-life movement in the continent is hoping its diverse strategies will have an impact on the culture.