Eastern Europe’s Conservative Crackdown on Reproductive Freedom

Across Eastern and Central Europe, as unemployment surges and the European Union dithers, nationalist conservative and far right parties are on the march. Emboldened right-wing leaders are resurrecting debates around abortion and other reproductive services, even in countries like Hungary, one of the first European countries to explicitly legalize abortion.

“There is a very strong pronatalist [anti-choice] current in Central and Eastern Europe and that goes along with nationalist tendencies in many of these countries,” says Johanna Westeson, the European regional director for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “One of the things that is very visible is the so-called demography argument. Birthrates are very low in Central and Eastern Europe and in an attempt to increase birthrates women’s reproductive rights are being [restricted].”

In some corners of the region, socially conservative policies quickly emerged after the collapse of Communism. Poland’s intense Catholicism—89.8 percent of Poles are Catholic, with about 75 percent practicing—resulted in one of the continent’s harshest abortion laws and most limited access to contraceptives (this did not improve Poland’s birth rate, which lags far behind countries with liberal reproductive rights laws, like the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian nations). In most other nations, including Hungary, abortion laws remained within European norms.

Then, in 2010, Hungary’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz party swept to victory and quickly acted to entrench their position. The conservative government infringed upon the independence of the judiciary, the central bank, the media, election boards, and installed party loyalists in institutions ranging from courts to opera houses. In March 2011, Fidesz and its Christian Democratic allies presented a new constitution, with no input from opposition parties.

Seven months later that constitution is law, including a stand alone section reading: “Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; embryonic and foetal life shall be subject to protection from the moment of conception.”

Hungarian abortion law remains unchanged, so far. But the constitution is less than a month old and new elections will not be held until 2014. And that may not even matter. Fidesz’s recent redistricting makes it next to impossible to lose future elections. Power will likely be concentrated in anti-choice hands for the foreseeable future.

“We know what their intentions are. Even though it doesn’t create restrictions on abortion itself, it creates the ability,” says Christina Zampas, Practitioner-in-Residence and Supervising Attorney with the University Of Miami Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. “If you look globally at countries that have this language in their constitution–some countries in Latin America, Africa—they almost inevitably have restrictive abortion laws.”

Such a law would not be popular in Hungary. Hungary isn’t Poland: While more than 50 percent of Hungarians identify as Catholic, only 21 percent attend services regularly. Poll numbers from March, 2011 showed 42 percent of respondents found abortion “acceptable due to family or economical problems” and a further 29 percent thought that women should have complete control over their bodies. Fidesz seems to recognize these facts and they did not campaign on rolling back reproductive rights. The same can not be said of their Christian Democratic (KDNP) allies.

Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament and while Fidesz controls the vast majority of seats they cannot obtain a supermajority without help. Although Fidesz and the KDNP are tightly knit and cooperate during elections, the latter’s prioritization of reproductive rights is not necessarily a shared passion. When the two parties met to craft the new constitution, the KDNP faction threatened to forsake the alliance, denying Fidesz their supermajority, if a life from conception clause was not included. The clause is now enshrined within Hungarian law.

“There is a big chance that the government could restrict abortion, not with a big ban but in more subtle ways less likely to stir much opposition from the people in general,” says Kuszing Gábor, a consultant with the Association Against Patriarchy (Patent), one of the principal groups opposing the new constitutional language. “But this government is so crazy, they have done so many unthinkable things, which are so unpopular, that I can imagine them actually doing it in the end.” Another possibility is that an anti-choice group could bring the current law to court and challenge its legality under the new constitution.

Abortion isn’t the only front where Hungarian conservatives are encroaching upon reproductive freedom. Non-condom contraceptives are already hard to access (they are not covered by national health care), but for a brief moment it seemed that emergency contraception—Plan B—would soon be available over the counter. But on August, 2011 it was unexpectedly ruled that the pill endangered the “mother” and the “fetus” (Plan B acts to prevent fertilization from occurring).

Resistance to these reactionary policies was slow, at first. Reproductive rights are not a perennial topic of political discourse in Hungary, as it is in Poland or America. Abortion’s essential legality has been established since 1953. “The Hungarian women’s movement was taken by surprise by this language in the new Hungarian constitution,” says Westeson. “No one saw this coming.”

But a coalition of feminist groups and other elements of civil society have been banding together and attempting to raise public awareness and protest the constitutional provision. The coalition is impressively diverse: health professionals, traditional civil rights groups, NGOs, and international human rights organizations. But it is unclear whether they will have leverage in a country where political and judicial power is concentrated entirely in the hands of the people who wrote the very constitution they object to.

Hungry isn’t alone. Fiercely anti-choice policies are being introduced across Central and Eastern Europe. Heavily Catholic Slovakia recently saw an attempt to pass a law establishing longer waiting periods and bias counseling requirements. Meanwhile, a constitutional court case is challenging the legality of Slovakia’s abortion law outright. In 2008, legislation was introduced in Lithuania banning abortion except in instances where the woman’s life is at risk or the pregnancy is the result of a crime (it failed by narrow margins). Macedonia, Moldova, and Romania have all seen anti-choice political factions gain strength in recent years.

Many of these states are Catholic bastions where the church exercises a strong influence on politics. The state of abortion rights in Russia shows that the trend is more than another case of the Vatican’s unfortunate power over sexual and reproductive policy. The Russian Orthodox Church has not wielded much influence over politics in almost one hundred years, allowing the former Soviet Union to be the first nation to legalize abortion in 1920. But 2011 saw a series of sweeping anti-abortion laws, informed by recommendations from the Church that enacted week long waiting periods, a 12 week legal cap, requirements that women over six weeks pregnant be shown an ultrasound, and mandatory appointments with a government psychologist who will try to convince the woman to carry her pregnancy to term. Abortion providers are now forced to spend 10 percent of any advertising on descriptions of the supposed dangers of abortion. These changes are explicitly meant to curb the nation’s falling birthrate.

Coercive attempts to increase birthrates do not work. Abortion and access to contraceptives are tightly restricted in Poland, but the national birthrate continues to decline. As Michelle Goldberg demonstrates in her book, The Means of Reproduction, “in contemporary societies, birthrates are highest where support for working mothers is greatest.” This is why France has one of the highest birthrates in Europe, along with abortion laws that are more liberal than Hungary’s current standards: women can expect generous paid maternity leave and, more importantly, easy access to public daycare and after school care.

Central and Eastern European leaders would do well to note that women in industrialized societies feel more comfortable having children if they know they won’t have to quit their jobs and remain at home. Enabling women to comfortably choose larger families is the way to end the demographic crisis. Restricting, or even banning abortion, will only cause more women to get the procedure illegally, and dangerously.

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.