How will the abortion debate in the US impact Europe?
On 5 May 2022, a draft opinion of the US Supreme Court was leaked that seeks to overturn the 1973 landmark decision of Roe v Wade that made abortion legal in the country. The opinion has been described as “a full-throated, unflinching repudiation” of Roe v Wade, with Justice Samuel Alito declaring that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.” There are fears that overturning Roe v Wade will not only outlaw abortion in more than half of US states but also impact other countries, including in Europe.
Abortion rights: Europe and the US
European countries have protected abortion rights differently than the US. The US has protected these rights based not on any federal law but based on legal precedent set by its supreme court. European countries have passed national laws to protect the right to abortion. In other words, while the US has constitutionally protected abortion rights, Europe has democratically protected them.
Almost all European countries allow abortion. Specifically in the European Union (EU), all countries except Poland and Malta have legalised abortion. In 2021, the European Parliament declared access to safe abortion a human right. Currently, 95% of women of reproductive age in Europe have abortion rights. The standard practice in Europe has been to legalise abortion at least in the first trimester of pregnancy while ensuring that abortion is accessible throughout pregnancy if it is critical to the woman’s health or life.
Opposition to abortion
The democratic basis for abortion rights in Europe has also meant that the future of these rights is vulnerable to public pressures and the vicissitudes of popular opinion. Moreover, there is a divide within Europe over abortion, which may mean that events in the US may impact some European countries more than others. While Northern European countries hold liberal positions on abortion, countries in Eastern and Southern Europe are seeing fierce opposition to abortion.
Conservative activists as well as religious institutions in Eastern and Southern Europe have been very vocal in their advocacy against abortion. Despite urging a strictly pastoral response to abortion, Pope Francis has publically declared that “abortion is murder.” Despite its near-total ban on abortion, Poland has seen protests even against its existing abortion laws. Despite medical emergencies, 70% of doctors in Italy refuse to perform abortions. Even in relatively liberalised European countries, abortion faces opposition. In the Netherlands, for example, Dutch pro-life organisations such as ‘Schreeuw om Leven’ (Scream for Life) and ‘Jezus Leeft’ (Jesus Lives) often protest outside abortion clinics. In Germany, rural women seeking an abortion continue to face significant barriers.
The events in the US are likely to invigorate this opposition to abortion in Europe. They also highlight that despite nearly 60 years of legislative progress, Europe has still failed to make access to abortion universal. This fragility of abortion in Europe was recently made apparent when the European Parliament elected a conservative Maltese lawyer, Roberta Metsola, who opposes abortion, as its president. Malta, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, has the strictest abortion laws in the EU, making it illegal under any circumstances.
US influence on Europe
There is also the sobering challenge of how political developments in the US have increasingly influenced European politics. The political polarisation that Donald Trump caused in the US also galvanised polarisation within Europe. As argued by German historian Sylvia Taschka in 2019, “Trump’s America shines bright for Europe’s radical New Right.” Trump became a “mystical symbol of self-preservation and the survival of a culture” on a number of issues, including abortion and gender identity.
There is no doubt that the US Supreme Court’s upcoming reversal of Roe v Wade is the result of Trump’s four-year effort to push the federal judiciary to the right. Many in Europe who aligned themselves with Trump’s politics will read the fall of abortion rights in the US as a legacy that they should follow. This arguably started to happen even before the supreme court ruling. In Hungary, for example, the Trump-endorsed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made additional funding available to hospitals only if they did not perform abortions.
There is no doubt, therefore, that women’s right to abortion in Europe will be affected by the US Supreme Court’s decision. If abortion loses its legal precedent in the US, then the pushback against it in Europe will likely be strong, threatening the fragility of the progress it has so far achieved.