Restricting Abortion Access Is a Terrible Way to Fix Your Population Crisis

Hungary is trying to grow its population, but instead of supporting women's right to choose, the government has been making it harder and harder to access legal—for now—terminations.

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Mar 1 2016, 4:10pm

A Hungarian anti-abortion protest in Budapest. Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

Di* and her husband only wanted two children. When the Hungarian academic and immigration activist got pregnant for the third time at 38, she asked her doctor for a termination. "[The doctor] didn't like that," Di says. "She kept asking why I wanted an abortion, when we'd get money if we had another baby. By the end it was clear that I wasn't going to be able to get an abortion."

The idea that women can be gently bribed into cancelling their abortion sounds like a neo-capitalist version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but it's fast becoming reality for many Hungarian women.

The money Di referred to is part of a new government scheme launched in December which gives 10 million forints ($35,076) to Hungarian couples who have three children in 10 years. The financial support is intended to help them buy a home, but this isn't a loan—it's a onetime non-refundable payment that they will have to pay back (plus interest) if they don't have the kids.

"The doctor said we could retroactively apply for the payment," says Di. "It didn't matter to her that we didn't want the money. I wanted to concentrate on my activism and raising the children I do have. Not have another baby."

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Hungary is running out of people. From 2001 to 2011, the population of the country decreased by 200,000. This disastrous decline has been blamed on everything from the falling marriage rate, an increasing number of women postponing motherhood until after university, moral decay, young people moving abroad for work, and even the music volume in Hungarian nightclubs. Correspondingly, the country been tightening the legal criteria for abortion since 1992 to make it much less available, especially when compared to other European countries.

While abortion has been legal since 1953, a new constitution enacted in 2011 states that life begins at conception. Only surgical abortion is legal in Hungary, and women are required to undertake a mandatory counselling service which includes two appointments. The women must leave at least three days between the appointments, known as a "cooling-off period." A doctor is also required to confirm the pregnancy.

Dóra Dúró, a politician for the far-right political party Jobbik. The sticker on her laptop translates as, "The nation lives in its wombs." Photo courtesy of Abortourism

All these appointments take a while to organize. Many women find that due to bureaucratic wrangling they've run out of time. Hungarian women must also get a doctor's prescription to obtain the morning after pill, rendering the medication largely ineffective as it must be taken within five days of conception.

Anti-abortion bias in Hungarian politics is nothing new. The current government is headed up by notoriously right-wing Viktor Orbán and composed of the neo-conservative party Fidesz, backed by the Christian Democratic People's Party.

"Our politicians have no real plan and no coherent policies," an Abortourism activist explains. The Hungary-based pro-choice campaign was set up in 2015 as a fictional travel agency to raise awareness about abortion tourism. "The whole legal-medical state apparatus making abortion complicated and traumatic is very much about securing the entitlement to women's reproductive labour."

"[The government] have always opposed abortion but recently it's got much worse," explains Veronica*, an administrative assistant based in Budapest. Last year Veronica became one of the four to six Hungarian women per week who travel to Vienna to take the abortion pill. "I think they are worried because people are starting to ask questions: Why are you forcing women to have babies they don't want when there are all these refugees who want to come here?"

Why are you forcing women to have babies they don't want when there are all these refugees who want to come here?

In 2015, left-wing opposition parties began arguing that the population crisis could be easily solved by letting in the Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. The Democratic Coalition, Együtt, and Dialogue for Hungary all voiced support for refugees. Együtt politicians even went as far as to claim that 15,000 immigrants could be easily integrated into Hungarian society.

The suggestion that Eastern European countries could use the refugee crisis to tackle an aging population may be opportunistic, but it's an idea that seems to be gaining traction. After all, refugees are—for the most part—young, educated people who actually want to stay in Hungary, unlike their Hungarian counterparts.

The Hungarian media is heavily restricted when reporting on the refugee crisis (TV stations were told not to broadcast images of refugee children) and surveys show that many Hungarians are unaware of pro-refugee arguments. As support for Fidesz declines, however, there appears to be an increase in public awareness of the benefits to offering refugees asylum.

"When I started working with [the grassroots campaign] Refugees Welcome, no one mentioned our ageing population," says Di. "We were focused on getting people fed, warm, medical attention... After a while it started to get talked about more. Local people would bring donations to the centre and they'd start asking why we could not let a few of the younger, hard workers stay.

"It's a horrible way to talk about refugees—'Let's keep the strong ones!'—but it makes me hopeful that people are starting to notice the gap in [Prime Minister] Orbán's logic. We need more workers but we're turning them away. Why?"

It's illegal to talk about abortion, it's practically illegal to have an abortion, now it's illegal to even joke about abortion.

In 2015, Orbán told journalists: "I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country." For Veronica, this reinforces her suspicion that religious bias is clouding both refugee and abortion debates. "Most of the refugees are Muslim," she explains, "and the government doesn't want to repopulate the country with Muslim babies."

The Hungarian government's anti-abortion stance attracted international attention in 2011 when politicians diverted European Union funding into an anti-abortion campaign. Images plastered across the Budapest metro system featured a fetus begging its mother: "I understand that you are not yet ready for me, but give me up to the adoption agency, LET ME LIVE!"

In December, popular Hungarian singer Ákos made anti-choice comments on TV and said that women should be owned by men. One of the biggest cell phone companies in Hungary, Hungarian Telekom (owned by the German multinational Deutsche Telekom), promptly withdrew their sponsorship of the entertainer—only to lose a lucrative contract with the government.

An unspoken "what next?" keeps cropping up in conversations with women like Veronica and Di. What else will the Hungarian government do to make sure that its population crisis is solved by white Hungarians, and not by Syrian refugees? The answer appears to be more of the same—for now.

In January, the Abortourism website was shut down by the Hungarian authorities. "It's illegal to talk about abortion, it's practically illegal to have an abortion, now it's illegal to even joke about abortion," says Veronica.

"At this rate the only thing Hungarian women are going to be allowed to do is sit in a dark room and keep giving birth to babies they don't want—while Syrian women desperately try to find homes for the children they do want."

* Name has been changed