Ireland: the pro-choice won a battle, but the war goes on.

Ireland: the pro-choice won a battle, but the war goes on.

Posted on the 04/06/18

Ireland voted ‘Yes’, a resounding, clear-cut ‘yes’, spanning all demographics of the country. A ‘yes’ rooted in true public debate, a ‘yes’ that reconciles one with politics.


But as he was conceding defeat, the leader of the “Save the 8th” campaign, John McGuirko, was already referring to legislation “that will allow babies to be killed in our country.” He vowed to “oppose that legislation.” After the cheers of victory, Irish progressive forces and grassroots movements will have to remain vigilant and ensure that appropriate legislation is passed and effective implementation ensured. Indeed, experience shows that a mere law does not necessarily guarantee that women have effective access to abortion.

While Irish women received much hope this weekend, other women in Europe are still waiting. In Malta, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, they risk prison sentences, respectively 4 years, 20 years and life imprisonment!

In Poland, abortion is authorized only in the very limited cases of severe malformation of the fetus, rape and if the mother’s life or health is in danger. Practice shows that the two latter are virtually never invoked.

This very loud anti-choice minority increasingly attempts to impose dogmatic,religiously-inspired visions on European and international societies.

Even in countries where abortion has been de-penalised, countless obstacles remain and many women face difficult struggles when they want to exercise their right.

Statistics show that in Italy, 80% of doctors refuse to perform abortions based on conscientious objection. Moreover, despite the fact that an institution cannot have a “conscience”, it is often entire hospitals that “object”, rendering ineffective a right that Italian women acquired decades ago. Similar issues exist in Croatia, Poland or Hungary where anti-choice movements and governments do not refrain from putting political pressure on practitioners and hospitals.

Abortion is also often instrumentalised and portrayed as one of the causes of demographic decline in certain countries (e.g. Hungary and Bulgaria). These campaigns can be coupled, as it is the case in Hungary, with fear mongering related to the progressive dilution of national identity into cosmopolitanism and an imminent cultural invasion via mass immigration.

Beyond these extreme cases, in many countries, administrative, financial and moral hurdles complicate access to abortion and sometimes make it impossible. In Austria, Croatia, Portugal and Slovakia, abortion is not reimbursed by the national health system, rendering it inaccessible to the most vulnerable populations. In other countries such as Denmark, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia or Portugal, parental consent is compulsory for minors.

In Germany, the infamous article 219a of the criminal code – adopted during the Nazi period – bans any “advertisement” of abortion services, making it extremely difficult for women to access basic medical and administrative information on abortion. In France, the same information is available on state-managed portals.

In countries where abortion is apparently less controversial, anti-choice groups still try to exert their influence by spreading disinformation.

The specific case of Germany is telling. Article 219a is not enforced actively by the state; instead, it is anti-choice groups that monitor the websites of doctors and family planning centers and press charges. One of them, Klaus Günter Annen is the proud editor of a website called

But Mr. Annen is not alone. His actions are part of a larger anti-choice playbook pushing reactionary agendas supported by an increasingly well-organized and well-funded network of ultra-conservative organisations at international level. With modernized visual identities, snappy slogans hijacking human rights concepts such as the right to life or human dignity, this very loud anti-choice minority increasingly attempts to impose dogmatic, religiously-inspired visions on European and international societies. Banning or limiting access to abortion is part of their top priorities.


In 2013, a bill pushed by the organization Hazte Oir in front of the Spanish Parliament proposed a virtual ban of abortion in the country. It is only under public pressure that the government decided to drop it. Similarly, in Poland, organisations such as the Ordo Iuris Institute mobilized religious networks to gather signatures from citizens and pushed a bill proposing a full ban of abortion. Here again, it is only thanks to the mass-mobilization of the Polish Women’s Strike that the government dropped it.

In countries where abortion is apparently less controversial, anti-choice groups still try to exert their influence by spreading disinformation. In Belgium, for instance, anti-abortion activists infiltrated sexual education classes. Apparently neutral psychological support centers advertised in public transport turned out to be managed anti-choice organisations. In France, anti-choice websites were found to mimic governmental information websites to confuse visitors and serve them false information.

The European Humanist Federation and many of its partners advocating for women’s sexual health report having been confronted to these groups and experience consistently shows that their strategies are shared at international level. Moreover, while the gravest situations like the ones in Malta, Ireland or Poland are wildly publicized, the obstacles faced by many other women are much less known in our European public opinions. A recent survey in Belgium showed that 75% of Belgians did not know that abortion is still part of the criminal code of the country, that it is merely de-penalized.

This is why the European Humanist Federation strives to bring together actors at European and national level to keep exchanging and raising awareness. Its Belgian member organization, the Centre d’Action Laïque co-organizes with the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, the international conference “All united for the right to abortion” on 21-22 June in Brussels.

At this occasion, experts, activists and decision-makers from around Europe and beyond will discuss which European and International levers can be used for activists to uphold the right to abortion at local and national level. They will also draft a charter to be signed by as many policy-makers as possible for the upcoming European Elections.

For more information on the event, click here.

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