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PORTSIDE  February 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE February 2012, Week 3

Subject:

Eastern Europe's Conservative Crackdown on Reproductive Freedom

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Tue, 21 Feb 2012 16:32:27 -0500

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Eastern Europe's Conservative Crackdown on Reproductive
Freedom

By Jake Blumgart
Toward Freedom
February 3, 2012

http://www.towardfreedom.com/home/europe/2706-eastern-europes-conservative-crackdown-on-reproductive-freedom

Across Eastern and Central Europe, as unemployment
surges and the European Union dithers, nationalist
conservative and far right parties are on the march.
Emboldened right-wing leaders are resurrecting debates
around abortion and other reproductive services, even
in countries like Hungary, one of the first European
countries to explicitly legalize abortion.

"There is a very strong pronatalist [anti-choice]
current in Central and Eastern Europe and that goes
along with nationalist tendencies in many of these
countries," says Johanna Westeson, the European
regional director for the Center for Reproductive
Rights. "One of the things that is very visible is the
so-called demography argument. Birthrates are very low
in Central and Eastern Europe and in an attempt to
increase birthrates women's reproductive rights are
being [restricted]."

In some corners of the region, socially conservative
policies quickly emerged after the collapse of
Communism. Poland's intense Catholicism-89.8 percent of
Poles are Catholic, with about 75 percent
practicing-resulted in one of the continent's harshest
abortion laws and most limited access to contraceptives
(this did not improve Poland's birth rate, which lags
far behind countries with liberal reproductive rights
laws, like the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian
nations). In most other nations, including Hungary,
abortion laws remained within European norms.

Then, in 2010, Hungary's right-wing nationalist Fidesz
party swept to victory and quickly acted to entrench
their position. The conservative government infringed
upon the independence of the judiciary, the central
bank, the media, election boards, and installed party
loyalists in institutions ranging from courts to opera
houses. In March 2011, Fidesz and its Christian
Democratic allies presented a new constitution, with no
input from opposition parties.

Seven months later that constitution is law, including
a stand alone section reading: "Every human being shall
have the right to life and human dignity; embryonic and
foetal life shall be subject to protection from the
moment of conception."

Hungarian abortion law remains unchanged, so far. But
the constitution is less than a month old and new
elections will not be held until 2014. And that may not
even matter. Fidesz's recent redistricting makes it
next to impossible to lose future elections. Power will
likely be concentrated in anti-choice hands for the
foreseeable future.

"We know what their intentions are. Even though it
doesn't create restrictions on abortion itself, it
creates the ability," says Christina Zampas,
Practitioner-in-Residence and Supervising Attorney with
the University Of Miami Law School's Human Rights
Clinic. "If you look globally at countries that have
this language in their constitution-some countries in
Latin America, Africa-they almost inevitably have
restrictive abortion laws."

Such a law would not be popular in Hungary. Hungary
isn't Poland: While more than 50 percent of Hungarians
identify as Catholic, only 21 percent attend services
regularly. Poll numbers from March, 2011 showed 42
percent of respondents found abortion "acceptable due
to family or economical problems" and a further 29
percent thought that women should have complete control
over their bodies. Fidesz seems to recognize these
facts and they did not campaign on rolling back
reproductive rights. The same can not be said of their
Christian Democratic (KDNP) allies.

Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds
majority in Parliament and while Fidesz controls the
vast majority of seats they cannot obtain a
supermajority without help. Although Fidesz and the
KDNP are tightly knit and cooperate during elections,
the latter's prioritization of reproductive rights is
not necessarily a shared passion. When the two parties
met to craft the new constitution, the KDNP faction
threatened to forsake the alliance, denying Fidesz
their supermajority, if a life from conception clause
was not included. The clause is now enshrined within
Hungarian law.

"There is a big chance that the government could
restrict abortion, not with a big ban but in more
subtle ways less likely to stir much opposition from
the people in general," says Kuszing Gábor, a
consultant with the Association Against Patriarchy
(Patent), one of the principal groups opposing the new
constitutional language. "But this government is so
crazy, they have done so many unthinkable things, which
are so unpopular, that I can imagine them actually
doing it in the end." Another possibility is that an
anti-choice group could bring the current law to court
and challenge its legality under the new constitution.

Abortion isn't the only front where Hungarian
conservatives are encroaching upon reproductive
freedom. Non-condom contraceptives are already hard to
access (they are not covered by national health care),
but for a brief moment it seemed that emergency
contraception-Plan B-would soon be available over the
counter. But on August, 2011 it was unexpectedly ruled
that the pill endangered the "mother" and the "fetus"
(Plan B acts to prevent fertilization from occurring).

Resistance to these reactionary policies was slow, at
first. Reproductive rights are not a perennial topic of
political discourse in Hungary, as it is in Poland or
America. Abortion's essential legality has been
established since 1953. "The Hungarian women's movement
was taken by surprise by this language in the new
Hungarian constitution," says Westeson. "No one saw
this coming."

But a coalition of feminist groups and other elements
of civil society have been banding together and
attempting to raise public awareness and protest the
constitutional provision. The coalition is impressively
diverse: health professionals, traditional civil rights
groups, NGOs, and international human rights
organizations. But it is unclear whether they will have
leverage in a country where political and judicial
power is concentrated entirely in the hands of the
people who wrote the very constitution they object to.

Hungry isn't alone. Fiercely anti-choice policies are
being introduced across Central and Eastern Europe.
Heavily Catholic Slovakia recently saw an attempt to
pass a law establishing longer waiting periods and bias
counseling requirements. Meanwhile, a constitutional
court case is challenging the legality of Slovakia's
abortion law outright. In 2008, legislation was
introduced in Lithuania banning abortion except in
instances where the woman's life is at risk or the
pregnancy is the result of a crime (it failed by narrow
margins). Macedonia, Moldova, and Romania have all seen
anti-choice political factions gain strength in recent
years.

Many of these states are Catholic bastions where the
church exercises a strong influence on politics. The
state of abortion rights in Russia shows that the trend
is more than another case of the Vatican's unfortunate
power over sexual and reproductive policy. The Russian
Orthodox Church has not wielded much influence over
politics in almost one hundred years, allowing the
former Soviet Union to be the first nation to legalize
abortion in 1920. But 2011 saw a series of sweeping
anti-abortion laws, informed by recommendations from
the Church that enacted week long waiting periods, a 12
week legal cap, requirements that women over six weeks
pregnant be shown an ultrasound, and mandatory
appointments with a government psychologist who will
try to convince the woman to carry her pregnancy to
term. Abortion providers are now forced to spend 10
percent of any advertising on descriptions of the
supposed dangers of abortion. These changes are
explicitly meant to curb the nation's falling
birthrate.

Coercive attempts to increase birthrates do not work.
Abortion and access to contraceptives are tightly
restricted in Poland, but the national birthrate
continues to decline. As Michelle Goldberg demonstrates
in her book, The Means of Reproduction, "in
contemporary societies, birthrates are highest where
support for working mothers is greatest." This is why
France has one of the highest birthrates in Europe,
along with abortion laws that are more liberal than
Hungary's current standards: women can expect generous
paid maternity leave and, more importantly, easy access
to public daycare and after school care.

Central and Eastern European leaders would do well to
note that women in industrialized societies feel more
comfortable having children if they know they won't
have to quit their jobs and remain at home. Enabling
women to comfortably choose larger families is the way
to end the demographic crisis. Restricting, or even
banning abortion, will only cause more women to get the
procedure illegally, and dangerously.
___________________

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based
in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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