Magazine article U.S. Catholic

How Do You Say Pro-Life in French? the Politics of Abortion in Europe Is Both More Complex and More Nuanced Than on This Side of the Atlantic

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

How Do You Say Pro-Life in French? the Politics of Abortion in Europe Is Both More Complex and More Nuanced Than on This Side of the Atlantic

Article excerpt


Some things never go quite according to plan. Two years ago the British Parliament launched an inquiry into scientific developments relating to abortion. It was chaired by Evan Harris, one of the most aggressively pro-abortion politicians in the House of Commons. A string of witnesses drawn from providers and advocates of abortion argued day after day that there was no scientific case (moral aspects were purposely excluded) to marginally reduce the legal upper time limit for abortions from 24 weeks of gestation, as some politicians and academics had been proposing. Pro-life groups began to complain of a stitch-up, a fait accompli.

Then Dr. Vincent Argent, a former director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the organization that carries out more than a quarter of some 200,000 annual abortions in Britain, shocked both sides with his submission.

He said the existing limit was too high for the overwhelming majority of abortions and that it should be lowered to 16 weeks. Public opinion was growing strongly against the late-term abortions of healthy babies, he said, and the law needed to be tightened up.

Here was one of the most senior abortion practitioners in Britain proposing what he called a "pragmatic middle-of-the-road view" to resolve an issue that remains far from being politically settled. Although he was ultimately ignored by the pro-abortion contingent within Parliament, his views are shared by many other doctors who perform abortions, including Stuart Campbell, whose pioneering scan of a 12-week fetus apparently sucking its thumb was the spark that reignited a recent British debate on abortion.


Argent's intervention dismayed hard-core supporters of abortion, but it encouraged pro-life activists who felt, at last, that opinion polls consistently revealing public unease over high abortion rates and late abortions were having an impact.

"We are slowly awakening the conscience of Europe to the humanity of the unborn child, not least thanks to the wonders of new ultrasound technology," explains Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a British pro-life lobby group.

"Abortion of viable babies for whatever reason is at last being seen as a barbarism unworthy of any civilized society," Quintavalle says. "I am convinced that the majority of Europeans are hugely uncomfortable about late abortions and are ready for significant change at least in that category. The lives saved will be sadly few when compared to the millions performed in the first trimester, but it is a symbolic change of attitude nevertheless, showing that at last the tide is turning."

Many pro-life activists in Europe do not realistically expect to abolish abortion in the foreseeable future. They do, however, see the abolition of late abortions as an achievable goal and also want to address the causes of abortion in the hope that they can help bring figures down.

One size doesn't fit all

The European situation regarding abortion varies widely, of course, with 27 member states in the European Union each able to decide their abortion laws on a national basis. Few regard abortion as a "right" in the way established in the United States by Roe v. Wade, and in some E.U. countries the procedure remains technically illegal unless certain conditions are satisfied.

In Germany and France, for instance, abortions must be carried out within 12 weeks unless there are extraordinary circumstances. The Scandinavian countries, along with Britain, generally do not tolerate abortions of healthy fetuses beyond the point at which they are "viable," when they have a chance of survival outside of the womb--usually by 24 weeks.

Abortions are forbidden at any stage in Andorra, the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, Monaco, and Poland except in such situations as a grave threat to the life of the mother. …

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