Tag Archives: Abortion

The pitfalls of Italy’s abortion law

ON PAPER, Italy’s law on abortion seems flawless – but reality is much different due to the existence the loophole known as conscientious objection.

Abortion was illegal in Italy until May 1978, when Law 194 was passed and introduced the right to terminate a pregnancy safely and with the minimal risk for women’s health. By law, any woman is allowed to terminate a pregnancy on request during the first 90 days for whatever reason they see fit. Once obtained proof as to the state of the pregnancy, all that it takes is making an appointment with a structure authorized to terminate the pregnancy. This may be either a public hospital, where the whole procedure is free of charge, or in a structure authorized by the regional health authorities. Should carrying the pregnancy to term endanger the woman’s life or health, or should the foetus’ health turn out to be seriously compromised – thus putting strain on the mother’s emotional and psychological state – the termination can be carried out up to 20 weeks after conception.

All in all Law 194 seems flawless, allowing women to terminate an undesired pregnancy with minimal risk for their health. Reality, however, is quite different. The most obvious loophole is that of conscientious objection: the possibility for any doctor to refuse performing an abortion on ethical or religious grounds. As a result, while Law 194 grants women the right to a safe abortion, doctors are also allowed to refuse performing it.

The volume of objection

What raises an issue is the sheer amount of conscientious objectors. While the percentage varies depending on the region, it only goes below fifty percent in one region. In several regions conscientious objectors are 80 – 85% of the medical personnel qualified to perform abortions. These numbers are at odds with people’s general attitude toward the issue: in 2012 a Censis report found that only 26% of individuals interviewed were against the right to abortion, with 60% being pro-choice.

As a result of the high percentage of objectors, booking an appointment can be far more difficult than it should be – with the risk of getting past the time limit of 90 days after which a pregnancy can only be terminated under special circumstances. While any attempt at changing the situation has been rejected by Catholics and pro-life movements as an attack to the medical personnel’s conscientious freedom, Claudio Crescini – of the Italian Association of Hospital Obstetricians and Gynecologists – says that it often isn’t a matter of personal belief.

“Abortion is overused in electoral and political debates, and there’s a lot of pressure on us,” he says.“While it’s not explicitly stated, someone who’s not an objector doesn’t have the easy career an objector makes – and they’re often forced to perform nothing but abortions.” In short, conscientious objectors have less of a work load than non-objectors with no risk of damaging their career by avoiding a loaded issue. It’s no wonder that many choose not to perform abortions for convenience rather than because of a religious or ethical issues.

An even bigger obstacle comes from those who take their right to conscientious objection well past what the law allows. Objectors have the right not to personally perform an abortion – but that’s all. Emergency contraception, like the morning-after pill or RU-486, isn’t covered by the right to objection; there is no right for the doctor to refuse prescribing it, or for any medical professional to refuse giving it to a woman who asks for it.

At what cost ? 

And yet that’s precisely what happens and women’s right to safely terminate or avoid a pregnancy is constantly under attack. Despite it being against the law, many doctors downright refuse to prescribe emergency contraception. Last week in Voghera, a town in Lombardy, a nurse kept two young women from accessing to the hospital when they said they wished to get a prescription for the morning-after pill. It’s not uncommon for objectors to try guilting women into not terminating the pregnancy, adding strain to what’s already a stressful situation. Some were even left alone through part of the procedure because the doctors and nurses who started their shift were objectors. As a result, women have to leap through fire hoops for a chance to terminate a pregnancy – a right granted by Law 194. Some doctor go as far as refusing to certify their state, knowing that without a certificate they cannot terminate a pregnancy without medical proof that there is indeed a pregnancy. The practice is so widespread that Nicola Zingaretti, President of Lazio, had to introduce new rules in his region stating that medical personnel in public structures could not refuse to certify a state of pregnancy or to prescribe emergency contraception.

This raises the question of what pro-life movements precisely hope to accomplish by trying to force women into carrying undesired pregnancies to term. If they think it would make abortions stop, they’re sorely mistaken: history and common sense tell us it wouldn’t be the case.

A 2000 survey by Istat – the Italian National Institute of Statistics – estimates that at least 20,000 illegal abortions were carried on every year prior to 1978, when Law 194 was passed and abortion became legal. The fact most illegal abortions were obvious carried on in secret makes it difficult to give exact figures; Istat doesn’t rule out the possibility their estimate may be lower than the truth.Before Law 194 abortions had been happening under wraps in the entire country as illegal, unsafe procedures that could easily result with the woman’s death due to haemorrhage and infections. Fear of social stigma would lead many unmarried women to risk their lives to terminate the pregnancy; fear of punishment would keep them from seeking medical help afterwards. Even for those who sought help, it was often too late.

This is what comes out of taking away women’s right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term: not only it fails to keep abortions from happening, but it also puts women in the position to risk their own health and lives to terminate a pregnancy.

So much for pro-life.

Written by Allessandra Pacelli 

Image Credit: Paolo Margari 




Unsafe Abortion kills – the dangerous ‘pro-life’ war in Europe

Europe has a reputation for being one of the most liberal places in the world when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights. However, laws on paper do not necessarily reflect attitudes on the ground.  Ariane Osman investigates the growing attempts to repress abortion rights across the European Union and the consequences this could have on its women and girls.

On Sunday 21st of October, Savita Halappanavar, a dentist from India who was expecting her first child with husband Praveen, was rushed to hospital in severe pain. The medical staff informed her that she was going through a miscarriage and that – at 17 weeks – the foetus would not survive outside the womb. On Monday, Savita was in such a state of agony that she requested an abortion. She was denied due to the existing foetal heartbeat, which rendered the procedure illegal unless it was judged that there was substantial risk to her life. Savita spent the following day vomiting repeatedly and consultants continued to deny her repeated requests for the procedure. She collapsed that night but still, the foetal heartbeat meant that nothing could be done. On Wednesday the foetus died and its remains were surgically removed. Savita was placed under sedation in an intensive care unit with systemic blood poisoning. On Saturday her heart, kidneys and liver stopped functioning. On Sunday October 28th – she was pronounced dead. This scene did not unfold in an Indian hospital, it took place in Ireland, where abortion has never been legal and can land you 14 years in prison.

Hundreds crossing the Irish Sea each year

According to Amnesty International, over 12 women a day from Ireland went to the UK to access a safe termination between 1980 and 2012; however, these numbers, which are recorded by the UK Department of Health, are a gross underestimate according to Mara Clarke, founder and Director of the Abortion Support Network. “It only gives the number of women who attended a clinic in England and gave an address in Ireland or Northern Ireland,” she said. “It doesn’t count the women who give the address of a friend or family member in England, [or] the women who give a fake address.”

Savita’s death is a stark reminder that conservative reproductive laws are not only relegated to the developing world but are present within the European Union as well. Unknown to much of its population, legislative changes, which would make abortion illegal have been growing within member states over the past three years.

“One of us” citizen’s initiative

A European Union initiative has recently been employed to try and make abortion illegal across all member states.

On April 10 2014, citizen’s initiative “One of Us” was heard at the European parliament. According to the initiative’s report submitted to the European commission. the main objectives were that the EU, “establish a ban and end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health”.

It utilised the European Citizens Initiative (ECI), which allows European citizens to propose new legislations to the European Parliament if they have support from one million people from across seven member states.

The European Commission struck down the initiative on May 28, stating that their campaign would destroy life-saving scientific advances as well as life-saving sexual and reproductive heath rights.

Although rejected, “One of us” reflects the potential for democratic processes such as the ECI to pass laws that could take away rights granted to European citizens at a state level.

Restrictive legislation being debated

Women who undergo illegal abortions could be sentenced to up to three years in prison under a proposed law currently being debated in the Lithuanian parliament.

The ‘Law on the protection of life in a prenatal phase’ would only allow for an abortion if the woman’s life is in danger or if she is pregnant due to rape. Allowance for rape would only be granted if the woman can prove that she has been raped by the 12 week gestation limit.

But legislation is not only being rolled back in Eastern Europe. The Spanish population has shown outrage at the attempt to backtrack on recent advances made to Spain’s abortion legislation.

The existing law, which was introduced by the Socialist government in 2009, allows women and girls to terminate their pregnancy. The proposed reform, by the conservative Popular Party (PP), would make abortion illegal in all circumstances, unless the health of the woman is in danger or if the pregnancy is a result of rape.

“We can’t allow the life of the unborn baby to depend exclusively on the decision of the mother,” Ruiz-Gallardon, the Spanish Justice Minister told reporters in December 2013.

Women and girls seeking abortions also have to consult two doctors and produce a police report if they have been raped. Abortion providers also have the choice of refusing terminations, decreasing access to facilities.

Various polls have shown that 70-80 per cent of Spaniards oppose the reform; however, the rightist government has pursued the change in legislation.

If the bill is implemented, Europe risks repeating the trends that existed before abortion became legal, including a rise of maternal mortality. “We will come back to the previous years where the women from Spain were travelling to France and to the UK to have safe abortions,” explains Dr. Luc de Bernis, Senior Maternal Health

Adviser at the Technical Division at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “Certainly we will see an increase of maternal mortality and morbidity.”

Not everyone holds this view. “The life of an unborn child cannot be sacrificed without a proportionate reason,” said Gregor Puppinck, Director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), in an analysis of the Spanish proposal. US evangelical media mogul, Reverend Pat Robertson, founded the anti-choice organization in the 1990s.

France bucking the trend

Unlike their European neighbours, French lawmakers voted to ease access to terminations on January 21 2014. The previous law, which was passed in 1975, stated that all “pregnant women whose condition puts her in a situation of distress” had the right to an abortion.

The wording was changed to a “woman has the right to choose whether or not to continue with her pregnancy” and does not force women to explain their choice in seeking a termination. “Abortion is a right in itself and not something that is simply tolerated depending on the conditions,” said minister of women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Abortion rights are widely supported in French society: according to a 2010 IFOP poll, 86 per cent of women support it, although there has been backlash from the Catholic Church.

European Union: Abortion is a human right

The European Union has made note of the growing threat to sexual and reproductive health in member states and re-confirmed it’s unwavering support for full sexual and reproductive rights for every citizen.

A 2013 draft report on sexual and reproductive health rights by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) states that sexual and reproductive rights are “human rights” and any obstructions are “breaches of women’s and girls’ rights to equality, non discrimination, dignity and health, and freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Dr. de Bernis explained that the importance of making abortion legal and accessible stems from the consequences of unwanted pregnancy, which can result in child abuse and mental health issues. However, advocating for the legality of abortion does not equal taking the procedure lightly. “We (UNPF) are not promoting abortion, certainly not,” he said. “Abortion is not a means of contraception […] but abortion has to be considered if the women don’t want to be pregnant.”

Disparities between States

Despite recommendations by the EU, there remains disparity between the sexual and reproductive rights granted by member states.

According to official EU figures, 21 of the 28 member states allow for abortions on demand, mostly within the first 12 weeks.

In, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Finland and the United Kingdom (England, Scotland and Wales) abortion is available, but with limitations: including if the life of the women is in danger, health, social and economic reasons and if pregnancy is caused by rape or incest. Most circumstances call for two doctors to approve the termination.

In Ireland and Poland, abortions are severely restricted, with Polish law only permitting the procedure if the woman’s life or health is in danger, if it is the result of rape or if there is a malformation of the foetus.

In Malta, abortion is illegal under all circumstances.

Barriers regardless of legislation

But even in countries where the laws indicate that abortion is easily accessible, the facts on the ground tell a different story. Women must surpass multiple barriers including mandatory waiting periods, unregulated counseling services and conscientious objection’s practice to be granted a termination. The practice describes the ability of a healthcare provider to deny women access to a range of sexual and reproductive services.

According to the FEMM report, in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Ireland and Italy 70 per cent of all gynecologists and 40 per cent of all anesthesiologists conscientiously object to providing abortion.

The report explains that these barriers hit the most vulnerable women and girls the hardest. Having to travel long distances within their own countries due to lack of local services or having to travel to other EU states due to total bans adds to financial strain, which contributes to growing health inequities throughout the European Union.

Furthermore, the report states that making abortion illegal does nothing to decrease the amount of abortions that take place.

This is seconded by research conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO). They found that although some western European countries have the lowest rate of abortion in the world (12 of 1000 women), countries in Eastern Europe including Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, had more abortions than live births in 2003 (103 abortions per 100 births) giving them the highest estimated abortion rates in the world.

“Unsafe abortion kills”

The FEMM report does describe a relationship between the legality of abortion and the safety of the procedure, which is supported by the WHO’s Fact and Figures about Abortion in the European Region. It concludes that, “women seek desperate measures if they cannot obtain safe abortions.”

According to WHO, common methods to self-abort include the insertion of tubes or liquids into the uterus, coat hangers, knitting needles and the insertion of a flexible rubber catheter into the uterus to stimulate labour. The report into unsafe abortions states, “the more invasive the technique, the more dangerous it was to the woman and the more likely it was to disrupt the pregnancy.”

Short-term effects are listed as life-threatening sepsis or haemorrhage, which may lead to a hysterectomy and gas gangrene from Clostridium perfringens and tetanus.

Long-term effects are more difficult to come by. WHO estimate that 20-30 per cent result in reproductive tract infections and 20-40 per cent in upper-genital-tract infection and infertility. Unsafe abortions also risk reproductive problems in the long run including ectopic pregnancy, premature delivery, and spontaneous abortion.

Why the backlash?

The question now is: why, having being liberalized in the majority of the EU, are governments changing their minds on abortion rights?

According to the FEMM report, the decreasing demographics across Europe are changing policies focusing on sexual and reproductive rights to so called “family policies” in order to increase the number of births.

The number of anti-choice movements in the EU has also increased. “ [It] has expanded and professionalized over the past ten years,” said Neil Datta, Secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum of Population Development. “Many anti-choice organisations themselves feel that their set of values is under threat from what they perceive as an overly ‘progressive’ EU.” He also notes that they have learnt from the tactics of the US Christian right. “ There have not been non-religious organisations involved in an anti-choice initiative.”

The Catholic Church’s links to anti-choice groups, as well as it’s own influence, is also adding pressure. The midwife looking after Savita Halappanavar admitted at the inquest into her death that she told her patient the reason she could not have an abortion was because Ireland is a Catholic country. “It was the law of the land,” she told the inquest, “there were two referendums where the Catholic Church was pressing the buttons.”

The re-interference of the church in governmental affairs across Europe raises questions regarding the enforcement of laws separating Church from state.

According to Dr. de Bernis, attempts to make abortion illegal are reminders that sexism is still rampant in European society. “It’s just because […] the fight for gender equality is still not fulfilled,” he says. “A number of groups […] want to maintain a number of rules which are making women dependent […] with less rights and this means that certainly even in the most developed country, gender equality is still not fully established.”

Remembering Savita

The lives and health of women and girls in the European Union have benefited greatly from the legalisation of abortion and it is up to member states to protect this right.

“The EU can facilitate the exchange of good practice,” said Neil Datta.“So that national decision-makers may benefit from the best practices across the EU and adapt their legislation and policies accordingly.”

Whether the legislation’s currently being debated pass, the case of Savita Halappanavar is a constant reminder of the possible consequences banning abortion can have on women and girls.

“I am distraught, I have lost my soulmate,” Praveen Halappanavar, Savita’s husband, told The Irish Times. “I hope they change the law and make it more people-friendly [rather] than on the basis of religious beliefs, no other woman should have such a tragic unexpected end like Savita.’


Written by Ariane Osman
Image: informatique

Spanish abortion law: step back in time

The Spanish conservative government led by Mariano Rajoy has recently decided to reform the national abortion law. In light of the permanently ongoing pro-life or pro-choice debate, Adriana Díaz Martín-Zamorano analyses the status quo of abortion in Spain as well as the possible consequences that could emerge from the controversial new legislation.

When a Spanish woman was pregnant in 1980 and wanted to have an abortion she would face two options: travel abroad to countries which allowed abortion, such as the United Kingdom, or have a secret abortion. Thirty years later, in 2010, the government passed legislation that allowed a woman to have an abortion in Spain with the Ley de Salud Sexual y Reproductiva e Interrupción Voluntaria del Embarazo (Law of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy). But the current ruling conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has recently decided to take a step back in time in terms of women’s rights and amend this legislation.

Abortion as a crime
In most European countries abortion is a right. 20 out of the 28 Member States of the EU, including Germany, France, The Netherlands, Greece or Italy, allow women to legally abort their pregnancy without providing any specific reason within a certain limited amount of time –usually between the 12th and the 14th  weeks of pregnancy. Since 2010, that has also been the case in Spain, but the national Council of Ministers approved on the 20th December of 2013 a new system. Ley para la Protección de la Vida del Concebido y de los Derechos de la Mujer Embarazada (Law for the Protection of Life of the Conceived and the Rights of the Pregnant Woman), criminalises abortion, excluding a couple of scenarios such as rape and risk to the woman’s health. In addition, this ‘severe risk’ for the woman’s health has to be recognised by a medical report signed by two different doctors –up until now only one signature was required. Furthermore, the signatory can’t perform the abortion or even work in the same clinic where the procedure would take place.

Right now, only five countries in the EU – Poland, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Poland – have similar legislation on abortion. In fact, in the UK and Cyprus the range measures are way wider than the new amended Spanish law and include significant criteria, such as fetal deformation, which is reflected in the current abortion legislation in Spain and would be eliminated by the changes. Nevertheless, in other Member States, like Malta or Ireland, abortion is even more restricted. For instance, in Malta abortion is banned and Ireland has only reformed its abortion law recently in order to include suicide risk as a factor. The conservative decision creates further distance between Spain and its neighbouring countries while turning it into the only state in the EU that has carried out a structural reform of its abortion law to harden its conditions in the recent years.

A step back in women’s rights that enhances social and economic inequality
The truth is that strict rules around abortion did not seem odd or outdated during the Spanish transition to democracy from Franco’s dictatorship, but these measures now seem reactionary in an established democracy: a trip back in a time machine and a clear step back in women’s rights. Furthermore, the draft law does not only represent a symbolic decrease in rights, it can also have highly negative social consequences and enhance inequality in economic terms. If the parliamentary procedure approves the reform, Spanish women who need or want to have an abortion will have to travel to countries where abortion is legal or have a secret abortion in Spain. While the first possibility is strictly related to personal income thus enhancing economic inequalities, since not everyone can afford travelling abroad to go through such process; the alternative choice is often performed under dangerous conditions and consequently threatens women’s lives.

Pro-life or pro-choice?
In light of the ongoing abortion debate –pro-life or pro-choice-, what is clear is that the focus of the abortion reform is on the foetus to be born ahead of the woman’s right to choose. The conservative Spanish Minister of Justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who has launched the controversial law, claimed that ‘we can’t make the life of a foetus to be born depend on a woman’s will’. The Minister also understands that illegal abortions will have penal consequences for the doctor and not for the woman by justifying that woman is a ‘victim’ of abortion, an argument that has been labelled by some feminist groups as ‘paternalist’. Gallardón also defends that the main reason this new law has been carried out is mainly to fulfil ‘an electoral commitment’.

The public reaction towards the new legislation has been polarised. On the one hand, Christian institutions, such as the Spanish Episcopal Conference, presided by Madrid’s archbishop, Antonio María Rouco Varela, have expressed their satisfaction for the ‘improvement’ in the abortion law because it is important to ‘support both in theory and in practice the right to life’. On the other hand, several feminist associations have successfully organised demonstrations in the largest Spanish cities, like Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla, as well as in European cities, such as London, Dublin and Lisbon, calling for the dropping of the abortion draft. Last week Madrid’s Feminist Movement hosted a demonstration attended by around 15,000 citizens holding rue and parsley branches up in their hands –two plants traditionally used to interrupt pregnancy. The spokesperson of Madrid’s Feminist Movement, Laura Montero, declared to the press agency Efe that the greatest problem is that ‘women who don’t have money are condemned to insecure abortion which can lead them to death’. The opposition to the reform has not only been heard in the streets, but also on a political level: critical voices from the main opposition party, Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), rejected motions presented from local governments –even some ruled by the conservative party- and fierce debates in the European Parliament (EP) have divided left-wing and liberal parties against right-wing and Eurosceptic parties.

The unpopularity of the abortion reform shows that it would be appropriate for the Spanish government to reconsider the viability of carrying out such restrictive measures in the 21st century. However, for the moment, the Minister of Justice has given ‘his word’ that protests will not prevent his commitment to fulfil the electoral programme in terms of regulating the rights of pregnant women and the child to be born.

Studvest, Venstre and Vagina Day: Norwegian Fast News

forest fire

Women’s rights to self-determination, raging fires and a doubling in aid to South Sudan. Ingunn Dorholt provides an overview of the most important news in Norway right now. 

All over the world women are busy planning the V-dag (Vagina dag), which is a global event for raising awareness about violence against women. Meanwhile, this week, Norway has been said to be heading in the opposite direction – by limiting women’s rights.vagina day

A heated debate about abortion rights has been dominating Norwegian media the last few weeks. Norway has a reputation of being a forerunner for gender equality and women’s rights. Recently a political suggestion was made, that Norwegian doctors should have the legal right to protect themselves from any referral on abortion, consultancy for artificial insemination for lesbians and certain forms of contraception. This suggestion came as a result of a political agreement that the current government parties made with Venstre (a liberal party) and the Christian party (KRF) to ensure that the parties would support this minority government when their politics are to be approved in parliament.

The agreement was made in September, but has been given a lot of attention now, because a surprisingly high number of doctors have expressed a desire to take advantage of the rights they would receive from the new law.

To accommodate the high level of resistance against the law not only within the population, but also amongst members of the Norwegian doctors association, the government are now open to the possibility that the decision should be municipal. If so – it might end up being more difficult to get a referral for an abortion in the countryside of Norway than in the cities. The Christian party (KRF), who stands behind the suggestion, claims that this would mean breaking the initial political agreement.

abortionA woman’s right to a self-determined abortion was established in 1975 in Norway.  However there were cases where doctors were sending patients to colleagues in cases they were personally against. This practice was made illegal by the health department in 2011. While some claim that the doctor’s right to reservation will weaken women’s rights to self-determination, others claim that this will benefit women, since doctors that are personally against abortion are reluctant to perform such consultations. Furthermore it is claimed that is will merely work as a formality, since doctors all over the country already refuse consultations. Others, like Eline Kirkebø from the student paper “Studvest” claims that a doctors’ right to reservation would be undemocratic; “to uphold a well functioning democracy, doctors have to respect the rules and laws that have been made through democratic processes”.

Norwegian media has also been focusing on firefighters this week that have been fighting the biggest fire, in terms of damage, since the Second World War. The fire took place in Flatanger in the North-Western part of Norway. It started from high voltage wires, but due to heavy wind and the fact that the region has not experienced any rainfall since mid-December, the fire spread and the firefighters lost control of it. Heavy wind made it impossible, even for helicopters to participate in the battle against the flames. More than 90 houses and cabins were burned to the ground. Less than 24 hours after the first one, another fire started in Frøya, a bit further south where 700 people were evacuated.

forest fire 2

All of this took place only one week after another fire devoured 30 houses and sent more than 100 people to the hospital in Lærdal, also on the west coast of Norway. The city is famous for its historical wooden village from the 18th and 19th century, which is a protected area. Fortunately no deaths have been reported from any of the fires.

Finally Norwegian media has been following the Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende on his visit to the capital Juba of South Sudan, where he promised president Salva Kiir  to double  the Norwegian aid to south Sudan from 50 to 100 million kroner.