Europeans are overwhelmingly pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean women’s rights are safe | Anna Grzymala Busse

Aaccess to abortion is about to be severely reduced or cut off for millions of women in the United States following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down established constitutional protections for termination of pregnancy by the historic Roe v Wade case 50 years ago.

The decision allows state legislatures to ban abortion and half are now likely to limit access.

Despite condemnation from many European leaders, not all EU states have decriminalized abortion. Malta maintains a total ban. And in Poland, an already restrictive law was made draconian in 2020. Medical staff now face long prison sentences for performing or providing abortions and women have died as a result.

It should be remembered, however, that in the United States and Poland it was the courts, not democratic majorities, that made the decisions. What happened in the United States is the culmination of years of efforts by American activists to see more socially conservative judges appointed.

In Poland, the seismic change in abortion law also came after a court ruling. The Conservative Law and Justice government had tried in 2016 to pass legislation, but backed down in the face of massive street protests. Instead, he filled the Constitutional Court and other courts with his appointees. In 2020, the court duly ruled that fetal malformations were no longer a justification for abortion, limiting access to abortion to verified cases of rape and incest.

This judicial activism is no accident. Democratic majorities in most countries support abortion rights. Independent judiciaries, however, are not accountable to majorities. As a result, it is the judiciary that can often enact the restrictions sought by conservatives.

Majorities across Europe are in favor of the right to abortion. This is also the case in the United States, where recent polls show that more than 60% of respondents say that abortion should be legal in most cases. In Poland, 66% of respondents in 2020 say they are in favor of legal abortion in the first trimester. Only one in 10 Poles support the 2020 restrictions.

Men and women support abortion at very similar rates. In the United States, support for abortion has implications for race and income. Not surprisingly, young people are more likely to support abortion than older voters, and liberal voters are more likely to do so than conservative voters. Religious beliefs play less of a role than one might think: the exception being white evangelical Protestants in the United States, who overwhelmingly oppose abortion, but only since a political shift within the Republican Party in the United States. 1980s.

Voters support abortion rights – and so democratic processes, such as parliamentary votes and referendums, generally tend to expand access to abortion. In most countries where abortion is legal, it is thanks to laws passed by democratic parliamentary majorities. In almost all European countries, democratically elected parliaments have gradually established legal support for access to abortion with broad societal consensus. Germany only last week scrapped a Nazi-era abortion law that criminalized doctors after a majority in the Bundestag backed the reform.

Referendums have also widened to access. In Ireland’s famous 2018 abortion referendum, more than 66% of voters backed the repeal of a constitutional ban on abortion, with one of the highest turnouts recorded in the country. Recent referendums in San Marino and Gibraltar have also increased access to abortion.

Indeed, it was authoritarian rulers, whether in Turkey, Hungary or Russia, who pushed to restrict women’s rights and gender equality.

Anti-abortion groups pay close attention to public mood. This is why they tend to steer the conversation away from majority opinions or democratic legitimization. They argue that public support for abortion is “artificially created” and have vehemently opposed popular referendums. In 1990s Poland, the Roman Catholic Church was already so worried about the outcome of a referendum that it accepted a “compromise” solution that made abortion legal in some cases.

Anti-abortion activists have also begun using new EU citizens’ rights mechanisms to challenge the bloc’s funding of what they call “life-destroying” science and research programs, rather than prosecuting changes to abortion law, which would fall outside the competence of the EU.

This is not surprising, since abortion opponents face an even tougher climb in Europe than in the United States. They enjoy lower levels of political support and have fewer people participating in their marches. Religious observance in Europe is less common than in the United States, and therefore fewer people anchor their views on abortion in faith or belief. Most populist parties that have otherwise challenged the mainstream political consensus have left the issue of abortion aside.

Moreover, abortion is not simply available “on demand” in most European countries, and access is more limited after the first trimester. These restrictions make it harder to polarize public opinion, or argue convincingly that abortion is “murdering babies” or “dismembering children” as anti-abortion forces in the United States have done. . Indeed, the self-proclaimed “largest international pro-life group” in Europe, Human Life International, is based in the United States.

So what does this bode for abortion opponents in Europe? Judging by these models, they can rely on undemocratic means, be it legal challenges or autocratic rulers. But they cannot depend on popular support or democratic legislative processes. Yet, as the United States and Poland show, determined minorities can always get what they want.

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at [email protected]