Illustration by Julia Kuo

Why the Rise of the European Right Spells Doom for Reproductive Health

Right wing and nationalist parties are on the rise in Europe, prompting fears about a clampdown on abortion access. How worried should women be?

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Oct 18 2016, 1:50pm

Illustration by Julia Kuo

In honor of Planned Parenthood's 100-year anniversary, we're taking an in-depth look at the history and future of reproductive rights. Read more of our coverage here.

As I walked across London's Parliament Square earlier this month to join Polish pro-choice protestors, a warning seemed to ring out alongside the steady chimes of Big Ben. This isn't just Poland's fight, gathering activists told me. Instead, they said, a crisis in women's sexual and reproductive rights has steadily rolled out across Europe over recent years—harnessed by an unsettling rise in right-wing populism and nationalistic rhetoric.

"It's not just a Polish matter," said Polish activist Poli Palian, as we both stood on the Westminster grass amid placards and rallying cries. I had joined hundreds of women on October 4 who had gathered in the capital to support Black Monday, a day of strike action in Poland against a proposal for a near-total ban on abortion.

The planned law had garnered support from both the Catholic Church and Poland's governing right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS). It was submitted by the country's Stop Abortion coalition, and drafted by a hardline conservative Warsaw-based advocacy group and think tank called the Ordo Iuris Institute.

Every woman I spoke to over the course of Black Monday waved the same universal red flag—not just for Poles, but for all European women. "Right wing governments and the repealing of reproductive rights is spreading in Europe like a cancer," Palian warned me. "Check out what's happening in Croatia, check out what's happening in Hungary. This is not only us."

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Palian is right. Although unique in its extremity, Poland isn't alone. Attitudes towards reproductive rights seem to be in a state of flux across many European countries right now, including Hungary, Macedonia, Italy, and Slovakia. On paper, most countries within the European Union allow abortion on demand during the first trimester.

In reality, discrepencies and stipulations still occur. This is largely because the EU's mandate is somewhat restricted—reproductive rights do not fall under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the legally binding document that protects the rights and freedoms of all European citizens. As opposition to the European Union rises with the spread of anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment across the continent, that mandate looks to be restricted even further.

Catholic anti-abortion activists protesting outside an abortion clinic in the UK. Photo by Steph Wilson

"The EU is handcuffed a little bit in its ability to have significant impact," Leah Hoctor, the European regional director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, tells me. "Currently individual European Union member states retain primary competence in relation to reproductive rights and health. As a result, the European Union has limited competence and there are currently no legal enforcement procedures that the EU institutions can employ to protect the reproductive rights of women in EU member states or to prevent retrogression."

In light of this, Hoctor adds, "We have seen much less extreme, but nonetheless concerning, policy developments in some other countries in the region, particularly in central and eastern Europe."

She provides me with two examples: Macedonia and Slovakia."These are countries where we've seen the introduction, into law and policy, of things like mandatory waiting periods that are medically unnecessary, and biased counselling or information requirements," Hoctor says. "These things did not previously exist in these countries but they were introduced as attempts to essentially reduce women's access to abortion, which are legal in those countries."

Without women deciding to have children, there is no nation in the future.

To what extent is radical right-wing popularity fueling this backslide? Certainly in Poland the message is clear: The nationalist ruling party seeks to quash women's reproductive rights under the guise of so-called Christian family values.

"Law and Justice are concerned about the falling birth rate, and they see a stable family unit as crucial in promoting a sustainable future for the country," Dr Anne-Marie Kramer, a lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Nottingham, tells me. "They are deeply suspicious of gender rights, which they see as alien to Polish culture. Instead they see women's primary role as being within the family."

In other words, Polish nationalism is inextricably entwined with gender. "What that means is that the future of the nation is seen to depend on women's role within it," Kramer explains. "Without women deciding to have children, there is no nation in the future. If women choose not to bring up children in line with those 'nationalist' values, then the future of culture is seen to be under threat."

Right wing values have risen in popularity across Europe since Brexit, with one YouGov poll finding that almost half of adults in 12 countries now hold anti-immigrant and nationalist views. In early September, Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski stood alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to call for a European "cultural counter-revolution" after Britain voted to leave the EU.

Orban is already making good on this promise. Last week, he formally asked Parliament to tighten constitutional rules on immigration, despite opposition leaders accusing him of hampering freedom of speech. Emphasizing the need for EU members to safeguard their religious and national identity against an influx of refugees and migrants, Orban commented earlier this month: "Only those nations that have their historic, religious and national identity will survive and be strong."


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How will this rejection of EU values impact the country's reproductive rights? Abortion may be legal in Hungary, but it is not easily accessible. Like Poland, the central European nation is trying to grow its population. As a consequence, it is becoming harder and harder for women to make their own reproductive choices free from coercion. In 2013, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women condemned Hungary for two particular abortion restrictions—mandatory waiting periods and biased counseling—that aim to dissuade women from seeking legal terminations.

Although it might be too early to connect the situation in Poland and Hungary with what's happening beyond their borders, initial signs emerging across Europe are enough to raise concern. When we talk about reproductive rights, the battle doesn't stop with abortion laws—it crucially calls for universal access to sex education, comprehensive health information, and affordable contraception. And depending on where you find yourself in Europe, unequivocal access is already chequered.

A recent study, published by International Planned Parenthood Federation's European Network, revealed that in 16 European Union member states, governments are "continuing to fail in their commitments to improve equitable access to modern contraceptive needs." In fact, standards since 2013 have not only stagnated but deteriorated further. Amongst many other issues, the report highlighted how only three out of 16 European countries surveyed had government-funded sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) awareness campaigns; and only 50 per cent provided mandatory sex education.

The fact that there are many laws and policies in place regarding contraception and sex education does not mean that they are happening in practice.

I ask Hoctor about these discrepancies. "The fact that there are many laws and policies in place regarding contraception and sex education does not mean that they are happening in practice," she replies.

Post-Brexit, now is the time to question whether Europe's increasing political instability is aiding this decline in access and support. Over the last few years, unstable coalitions and fractured governments have shown how easy it is for reproductive health to be actively challenged.

Take Portugal, for instance, where more than 80 percent of the population identify as Catholic. In 2015, the center-right coalition government backed an abortion law that would legally require women to pay for their procedure and undergo mandatory counseling. Although these restrictions were overturned this year by a leftist alliance that toppled the conservative government, their brief implementation still alarmed many reproductive rights activists. At the time, opposition member, Greens MP Heloisa Apolonia, reportedly said that "the final session of the legislature was exploited...to humiliate Portuguese women."

Hoctor reassures me that the EU can increasingly apply diplomatic and political pressure to deal with this: "The impact of EU engagement and pressure should not be underestimated," she says. "Women's rights lawyers and advocates are creative and they will always find ways to maximize the impact of EU policy initiatives." That said, the inconsistencies in access to education and protections are still worrying.

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There is also power—and potential influence—in extreme political rhetoric. In May, women's rights groups in Croatia claimed that anti-abortion campaigners had the backing of the then ruling conservative HDZ party. And in Germany, the far-right party Alternative Für Deutschland (AfD) has also called for greater efforts to reduce the number of terminations, with some conservative members pushing to restrict abortion access. The AfD made sweeping election gains last month, entering Berlin state parliament for the first time.

Midway through writing this piece, Palian sent me a link to an interview Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński gave to the Polish Press Agency last week. Although Poland's Parliamentary lawmakers voted against an all-out abortion ban three days after Black Monday, he claimed his party would continue in their efforts to push it through nonetheless.

"We will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die [and is] strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name," he said.

"This is what we have to put up with," Palian tweeted me. Poland's crisis is Europe's alarm bell—and the country mustn't be left to fight it alone.