Culture, Travel & Sport

When will conservatives learn that banning abortion does little to address demographic decline?

CRACOW POLAND - JULY 23 2017: Another day in Cracow thousands of people protest against violation the constitutional law in Poland. Defense of the triad of division of power free election and independence of the highest court in Poland

A new Slovak bill limiting access to abortion – proposed by the populist OĽaNO (Ordinary People) party MP Anna Záborská – adds to a heap of similar laws that have been proposed throughout the emerging Europe region in recent years. The bill was brought before the Slovak parliament on Tuesday, but despite a heated debate that continued until late in the evening, a final decision could not be reached and a formal vote on its adoption was postponed: for now.

The draft bill proposes doubling the amount of time a patient should wait between requesting and receiving an abortion, increasing the amount of personal data collected about the patient, and requiring a compulsory second medical opinion, along with other measures designed to make getting an abortion more difficult.

“The measures in this retrogressive bill are purely political in nature and not only contain no medical purpose but contravene medical best practice guidelines,” says Monica Costa Riba, a senior campaigner for Amnesty International.

Controversy surrounding appropriate access to reproductive health is not new to Slovakia. In December 2019 lawmakers in the country rejected another bill that would have forced patients seeking an abortion to look at an ultrasound scan of the embryo or fetus they wish to abort.

The growing possibility of Slovakia toughening up its abortion laws will not only have an impact on Slovakians seeking the procedure but also on Polish citizens, thousands of whom travel each year to the neighbouring country for a safe and legal abortion.

Poland’s draconian restrictions on abortions have become infamous for being amongst the strictest in Europe. Abortion is allowed only in cases involving rape, incest, severe fetal abnormalities, or endangerment to the pregnant woman. Despite this, a new law calling for the full criminalisation of abortion, even in those instances in which it is currently allowed, was proposed in April.

Poland’s conservative laws surrounding reproductive health have been compared to those present in many other Catholic-majority countries around the world. While not nearly as extreme, a similar approach to the subject has been observed in Croatia as well.

This is far from just a religious issue though, as secular justifications for restricting abortions have also been presented by emerging Europe leaders. Hungary’s Family Protection Action Plan, created by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s conservative government, was designed to address the issue of the country’s declining population. However, some of the measures it takes have been described as limiting freedom by allowing hospitals to refuse abortions and for staff to attempt to discourage patients from terminating a pregnancy.

Bulgaria and Romania have the fastest shrinking populations amongst EU countries in the region, as well as the highest rates of abortion in all of the EU. While the procedure remains legal and, for the most part, accessible in both countries, some voices have begun linking it to the demographic crisis in the two states.

In Romania, a 2019 investigation by investigative platform The Black Sea found that over 30 per cent of public hospitals were not performing the procedure. While Romanian law allows for individual doctors to refuse giving an abortion on ethical or religious grounds, it is illegal for entire hospitals not to provide it.

These statistics are especially concerning considering Romania’s history with abortions. During the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the country had some of the world’s most oppressive laws designed to sustain population growth. These included an almost complete ban on abortion and an added tax for women over 45 who have not given birth, amongst others. While these policies did result in a modest population increase of just over one per cent annually throughout the 1970s, their social impact was anything but positive.

During this period almost 10,000 women are known to have died from ‘back alley’ abortions. Furthermore, while childhood mortality was falling in neighbouring communist states which allowed abortions, at its height, the rate in Ceaușescu’s Romania reached 62 per 1,000 live births resulting in the child dying before reaching the age of five. The inadequate policies also led to around 500,000 children being raised in dire conditions in state-run orphanages.

Numerous pieces of research from various regions of the world consistently find that children born in places with restricted access to abortion are significantly more likely to be living in poverty and less likely to achieve developmental milestones.

Bulgaria has the highest abortion rate in not just the EU but all of Europe at 380 abortions for every 1,000 live births, with some sources pointing to it also having the highest number of legal abortions per capita in the world. The vast majority of pregnancy terminations in the country have been the choice of women who are over the age of thirty. The Bulgarian Fund for Women suggests that, based on the regions where abortions are most commonly performed and the age of the patients, the likely explanation for these statistics is families being financially unable to provide for another child.

Safe and legal abortions are a basic healthcare need for people who can get pregnant. Limiting access to the procedure has been shown to have a largely negative impact on women’s wellbeing in particular. Examples from the region’s past should point to the fact that abortion bans cannot solve emerging Europe’s demographic struggle. However, this trend could very easily contribute to an increase in children being born in poverty, further adding to issues such as the low Human Capital Index scores recorded in certain emerging Europe countries.

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