News Analysis

Sunday 21 September 2014

How other Catholic countries in Europe deal with abortion

Graham Clifford

Published 25/11/2012 | 06:00

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No other subject provokes such intense debate here as abortion, as we have witnessed in recent days following the Savita Halappanavar tragedy. But how do other predominately Catholic countries in Europe deal with this divisive issue?

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In Poland, where 87pc of the population classify themselves as Catholics, it's legal to have an abortion when the woman's life or health is endangered by the pregnancy, when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act such as rape or when the foetus is seriously malformed.

Indeed, despite its Catholic stance, in 1932 Poland became the first country in Europe to allow terminations when the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act.

Under communism, abortions were easily accessible. The Christian Science Monitor reported that in 1981 Poland recorded about 230,000 legal abortions.

Today influential pro-life lobby groups, church authorities and right- wing political parties are calling for abortion in Poland to be banned altogether.

MPS in the nation's Parliament are working on a bill which will further restrict terminations in Poland but Pro-choice groups say any such measure will lead to an escalation in back-street abortions.

Officially, only 538 legal abortions were carried out in Poland in 2010, but unofficial statistics from the Federation for Women and Family Planning estimate the number is close to 100,000 annually.

While Polish laws on abortion may sound liberal, in practice they can be anything but. Just last month the European Court of Human Rights condemned Poland for the inhumane and degrading treatment of a 14-year-old rape victim whom the authorities tried to stop having an abortion.

In Italy, where 87.8pc of the population say they are Catholics, the law is completely at odds with the church itself.

Since 1978 women are allowed terminate a pregnancy on demand during the first 90 days.

Abortions are legal if they are carried out for health, economic or social reasons, including the circumstances under which conception occurred.

The procedure can be carried out free-of-charge in public hospitals and termination in the second trimester is permitted if the mother's life or health is at risk.

In some cases the terminations are carried out just yards from the border with the Vatican City.

Interestingly, the majority of physicians and other healthcare professionals in Italy invoke a 'conscience clause' allowing them to be exempted on moral and religious grounds from the actions they carry out in theatre.

By doing this they remove the threat of excommunication.

Spain too, with its 94pc Catholic population, has liberal laws on abortion. In 2006 the country's then-socialist government changed the law, allowing any woman to get an abortion up until 14 weeks.

The Socialist prime minister at the time, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, also legalised gay marriage and let same-sex couples adopt children. Now ruling conservatives want to restrict the right to terminations, though the electorate appears to be split on the issue.

If the ruling right-wing Popular party gets its way, Spain will join Ireland in prohibiting abortion where the foetus is malformed.

Malta is the most similar country to Ireland in Europe in terms of its lack of clarity on the abortion issue. It too is a hub of Catholicism with 98pc of the island's people considering themselves as such.

And, like Ireland, it traditionally has shied away from giving clear legal direction on when terminations can and can't be allowed.

While the law states abortion is illegal under any and all circumstances, they have been carried out when the life of the mother has been threatened without any charge being brought by the police.

In Savita Halappanavar's home country of India over 2.5million abortions have been reported so far this year though the number of 'unreported' abortions is expected to bring the total for 2012 to 11 million.

Under law enacted in 1971, abortions can be granted if there is a danger to the woman's physical or mental health, if the baby will be handicapped or malformed or if the conception occurred as a result of rape.

Additionally, terminations are allowed for unmarried girls under the age of 18 with the consent of a guardian.

In 1994 a law was passed criminalising gender-selective abortions in India but in reality little has been done to stamp out the practice.

Boys are preferred because they do not require the enormous dowry payments that bankrupt many poor families when their daughters marry.

Also it's believed that women have a low earning potential and so they will be a drain on the family's income rather than a contributor to it.

Prenatal tests, including ultrasound scanning, solely to determine the sex of the foetus, continues there with the abortion of female foetuses still a serious problem in parts of the country.

A study in the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that four to 12 million selective abortions of girls have occurred in India in the past three decades.

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