In 1960, abortion was practically illegal in Sweden, leading many Swedish women to go to Poland to get an abortion. Yet today, Poland is the EU member state with the most restrictive abortion laws except for Malta. On October 22nd, Poland’s constitutional court issued a nearly complete ban on abortion. However, this event is arguably part of a bigger trend in Europe and the US, a backlash against abortion access as part of women’s rights and gender equality. This backlash is in part connected to the rise of right-wing populism seen in the last two decades. As a result, many female global leaders are now stressing the need to fight back for women’s rights. 

What is happening in Poland?

Poland already had restrictive abortion laws before the latest court ruling in October, which outlaws almost all abortions by declaring them unconstitutional. Even in 2019, approximately 98% of legal abortions in Poland were carried out because of fetal defects, according to CNN. However, the new law would only accept abortions as legal in cases of rape, incest or when there is a provable threat to the woman’s life. 

Lawmakers supporting the change have argued that abortion in cases of fetal defects is discriminatory and violates the unborn child’s right to life. This ban on abortion in Poland has however sparked an intensive protest movement, leading to the largest mass demonstrations that Poland has seen since the fall of communism in 1989.  

Backlash on women’s reproductive rights in Europe and the US

Europe 

Poland’s move to further restrict women’s reproductive rights is arguably one of a series of acts aimed to undermine abortion rights in Western countries. This has been demonstrated both in the United States and Slovakia in recent months, even though Slovakia’s attempt to restrict abortion access was voted down in parliament.

In Europe, since 2010, six countries have introduced restrictions on abortion, although eleven countries and territories have increased access. Especially Central and Eastern European countries have seen an increase in restrictions. In addition to Poland, these countries include Armenia, Belarus, Russia, and Georgia. In Italy and Croatia, abortions have not technically been restricted, but they can be refused by providers offering them due to moral objections, allowed by the “conscience clause”. This means women must often visit multiple facilities, requiring movement which in Italy has been hindered during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to a 2017 paper by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the failed attempts to roll back abortion rights (often after strong opposition by the public) still demonstrate the backlash to the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in certain parts of Europe. 

USA

In the past two years, over 40% of US states restricted some form of abortion access. 21 states restricted access, whilst 10 states and the District of Columbia introduced measures protecting abortion rights. 

Compared to Europe, abortion is more contentious in the US. The legal case of Roe v. Wade in 1973 ensured the constitutional right to access safe and legal abortions in the US. However, the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have raised concerns about the possibility of the court overturning the landmark ruling, considering the new Associate Justice’s conservative stance on abortion. Abortion advocates now worry that abortion rights are in critical danger in the country, as many judges and justices at different levels of the Federal Court do not support the right to abortion. 

Furthermore, UN human rights experts are stressing that some States have been manipulating the Covid-19 pandemic to restrict abortion access, for instance by classing abortions as “non-essential” health care. These are states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. The Vice-Chair of the group of  experts, Elizabeth Rodrik, stated that “This situation is also the latest example illustrating a pattern of restrictions and retrogressions in access to legal abortion care across the country”.

Abortion rights demonstration (Photo by: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr)

Is right-wing populism the force causing the backlash on abortion rights?

The trend of attempts to roll back abortion rights can be seen as part of a broader backlash on women’s rights and gender equality. This is connected to the rise of right-wing populism, according to the European Women’s Lobby and a group of female global leaders. In Europe, right-wing populist parties have been gaining support at exponential rates in the past two decades, while in the US this ideological upsurge culminated in the election of  Trump to the office of President. 

In these two regions, there appears to be a link between the attempts to restrict abortion rights and rising right-wing populism. Within right-wing populism, the traditional, heteronormative family is often seen as the basis of all social and political institutions, and access to abortion or liberalised gender norms arguably pose a threat to this. 

Female global leaders have stressed that countries that have experienced pushbacks on women’s rights tend to have rightwing and “macho-type strongman” leaders,  such as Brazil, the Philippines, Italy, parts of Eastern Europe, and the US. 

A global trajectory towards abortion law liberalization?

Not only European countries and the US have seen a rise in increasingly negative attitudes towards abortion rights. In October, the Geneva Consensus Declaration was signed by 30 countries, challenging the right to abortion, instead emphasizing the “strength of the family and of a successful and flourishing society”. Simultaneously reaffirming that there is “no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion”. The declaration was co-sponsored by the US, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Uganda and Hungary. Amnesty International has condemned the declaration, stating that it is “another giant step backwards for reproductive rights globally”. 

However, despite the backlash, there is still a global trajectory towards abortion law liberalization. Over the past 25 years, nearly 50 countries have liberalized their laws and several countries have completely decriminalized it. Nearly half of the countries that liberalized their abortion laws have been in Africa. In Latin America, the majority of countries’ abortion laws are heavily restrictive, with most cases of abortion being illegal. Yet, Argentina’s lower house recently passed a bill legalizing abortions, following years of campaigning by the women’s movement. 

Additionally, according to a recent Ipsos Global Advisor survey of nearly 17,500 people from 25 countries, 44% said abortion “should be permitted whenever a woman decides she wants one”, and 26% said it “should be permitted under certain circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped.”

President Trump with President Duda of Poland (Photo by: Krzysztof Sitkowski, Wikimedia Commons)

What will the future bring?

Looking ahead, the global trajectory towards abortion law liberalization remains, even considering the current backlash on abortion access in Europe and the US, which nonetheless is a serious threat to women’s rights. Additionally, as women’s movements around the world fight for abortion rights, increased pressure is put on politicians. For right-wing populism, the “end of the Trump era deals a heavy blow to right-wing populist leaders worldwide”, says the Guardian. This is unlikely to indicate the beginning of their demise, but it can still remove a powerful motivational factor and alter the global political atmosphere. For women’s movements and abortion advocates, this would mean hopeful news. 

Ellen Löfgren