Column Series Title: State of (Liberal) Democracy in Post/Communist Europe
Written by: Ema Odra Raščan
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on the importance of health. The question of health has become an issue, discussed at the EU level, and ensuring a positive attitude towards vaccination seems to be one of the top media concerns for European institutions. While talks of greater budgets and more solidarity come hand-in-hand with the COVID-19 situation, the Polish constitutional tribunal is trying to tighten the ban on abortion. Can talks of women’s health on the EU level eliminate stigmatization and contribute to equal access of safe procedures in Europe?
The right to abortion has been a controversial topic for as long as laws have existed. The question of abortion is intertwined with the politicization of the female body, where lawmakers adopt policies that impact women specifically with justifications that the State’s legitimate interest is to protect the autonomy and dignity of women (The Phoenix, February 23, 2012). The oppressive rhetoric about preserving the female integrity, however, is employed when women are not part of the dialogue. Furthermore, in the European perspective, the right to abortion is neither recognized nor guaranteed.
In the EU, almost every country has legalized abortion on request or on broad social grounds, though Poland and Malta have the most restrictive laws (Center for Productive Rights, n. d.). Despite the legal status, there are many other obstacles in accessing safe abortion, such as time barriers and mandatory waiting periods for abortion on request, which undermine access to timely and affordable care and restrict women’s human rights and autonomous decision-making. Ergo, existing legal status on national level, contains also the existing national social, political and economic structures, which shape how technologies are used and how accessible they are to people.
Nevertheless, the health crisis following the COVID-19 pandemic, has shown that EU Member States (MS) are willing to cooperate on the European level to secure technologies, medications and other necessary items to ensure the health of their citizens. At the same time, as borders across Europe have closed and free movement of Europeans is restricted, only economically stable women can afford to travel abroad for a safe abortion. Others look for alternatives, like an abortion pill bought online. Women Help Women, which distribute the medication worldwide, have told the Guardian in June that their demand from Malta had tripled since the pandemic began (Clement & Borg, June 11, 2020).
Another troublesome feature in women’s health during the COVID-19 pandemic is the anti-abortion sentiment in Poland. The governing rightwing Law and Justice party already proposed a near-total ban on abortion in 2016, which the Polish parliament at the time had rejected (Reuters, October 6, 2016). Four years later, Poland’s constitutional tribunal has ruled that abortion due to fetal defects is unconstitutional, which means that abortion will only be permissible in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health and life. Given that 97% of the 1,110 legal abortions in Poland in 2019 were performed on the grounds of severe foetal defects, the court ruling means a near-total ban (Federa, September 7, 2020).
As soon as the ruling made news, pro-choice protesters marched in Polish cities, while their allies in other EU countries showed them a lot of support. It is due to these protests, which are the largest since the fall of communism, that the implementation of the law has been delayed.
Worrisome, however, is the fact that in 2020 policies are being made to reduce access to safe abortion and not to safeguard sex educate in school nor propose equal opportunities for safe medical procedures in Europe. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, that a lot of things are possible, if there is an interest. This is shown greatly on the example of the European Comission securing 200 million doses of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines in December 2020 and reserving another 300 million more doses, while also ordering 160 million doses of the Moderna jab (Deutsch, January 8, 2021).
By addressing health from a top-down approach, DG SANTE would fulfil its role of coordinating and facilitating the exchange of best practices between EU countries and health experts. The window of opportunity to speak about women’s health is now! MS are tackling the issue of health at EU level and trying to make healthcare and treatment accessible for all citizens. Before the window closes, it is urgent and necessary to call upon the European Commission to tackle the multiple layers of health in its policies, and provide a universal EU-wide education training on sex, women’s health and family planning in order to eliminate stigma.
Clement, M. and Borg, B. (June 11, 2020). How Malta’s abortion taboo leaves women in despair. The Guardian. Available via https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/11/like-ireland-on-steroids-maltas-abortion-tab oo-leaves-women-in-despair
Federa. (September 7, 2020). Terminacja Ciąży W 2019 Roku – Dostępność Aborcji W Polsce Według Najnowszych Danych. Federacja na rzecz Kobiet i Planowania Rodziny. Available via https://federa.org.pl/terminacja-ciazy-2019/
Reuters. (October 6, 2016). Poland’s parliament rejects near-total ban on abortion after protests. The Guardian. Available via https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/06/polands-parliament-rejects-near-total-ban-o n-abortion-after-protests
Deutsch, J. (January 8, 2021). EU secures up to 300M more doses of BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. Politico. Available via https://www.politico.eu/article/commission-purchases-300m-more-doses-of-biontech-pfizer-coronavirus-vaccine/
The Center for Reproductive Rights. (n. d.). European abortion law: a comparative review. Available via https://reproductiverights.org/sites/default/files/documents/European%20abortion%20law%2
The Phoenix. (February 23, 2012). Politicizing the female body: the war on women’s health. Available via https://swarthmorephoenix.com/2012/02/23/politicizing-the-female-body-the-war-on-women s-health/