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Abortion rights across Europe as France makes terminating pregnancy a constitutional right

As France makes abortion a constitutional right, what is the state of abortion rights across Europe?

Albert Toth
Tuesday 05 March 2024 18:42 GMT
France to enshrine abortion rights in constitution as a ‘guaranteed freedom’

France this week became the first country in the world to make abortion a constitutional right, after lawmakers voted to explicitly guarantee a woman's right to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy.

The historic move was approved by 780 votes against 72 in a vote in Versailles Palace, just outside Paris, and was met with a standing ovation.

Abortion rights are more widely accepted in France - where it has been legal since 1975 - than in the United States and many other countries, with polls showing around 80 per cent of French people back the fact that abortion is legal.

“We’re sending a message to all women: your body belongs to you and no one can decide for you,” new prime minister Gabriel Attal said.

Following the vote, Paris’ Eiffel Tower was lit with a celebratory message reading “Mon Corps Mon Choux”, as well as the English translation: “My Body My Choice”.

The Eiffel Tower is lit up with the message “My Body My Choice” after abortion vote (AFP via Getty Images)

In Europe, 95 per cent of women now live in countries that have legalised abortion on request, the vast majority with no conditions attached.

Here’s everything you need to know about abortion rights across Europe:

Abortion available on request

In Europe, 39 out of 47 countries have legalised abortion on request. The exact maximum pregnancy term differs from country to country, usually between 18 and 24 weeks.

France is amongst the most unrestricted country, with abortion available immediately on request. It is joined by others across Europe such Greece, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey.

France’s MPs and Senators during the gathering of both houses of parliament in Versailles (via REUTERS)

However, some countries enforce mandatory measures like counselling (12 countries) or a waiting period (15 countries). Nations that carry both include Belgium, Germany, Italy and Russia.

The Center for Reproductive Rights charity has criticised both these measures as biased and medically unnecessary.

Abortion allowed under certain conditions

The UK is one of only two European countries that allows abortion dependent on certain conditions being met (the other being Finland). These are enshrined in law in a legal act dating to 1967 and amended in 1990.

These conditions include risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or their physical and mental health, and risk of that if the child was born it would suffer serious physical or mental complications. It is possible to have an abortion up to 23 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy.

Full conditions for abortion under UK law

Abortion Act 1967

  • The pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family; or
  • The termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or
  • The continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated;
  • There is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

According the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, UK law gives doctors a “gatekeeping role” in deciding who may have an abortion. The wording of this law gives them a great deal of discretion to decide when conditions are met.

However, abortion has not been legalised in the UK. In 2023, 44-year-old mother of three Carla Foster was jailed for more than 2 years for taking abortion pills after the legal limit.

Abortion highly restricted or totally banned

There are only three European countries that still exercise a total ban on abortion. These are San Marino, Malta and Andorra. They are three of the smallest and least populated countries on the continent.

Three other countries have highly restrictive abortion laws: Liechtenstein, Monaco and Poland. These countries only allow abortions when the woman’s life or health is at risk, or the pregnancy is the result of a sexual assault.

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