Counteracting the Antichoice Threat in Eastern Europe: Women's Groups Know from Bitter Experience That States Are Too Willing to Pay Lip Service to Women's Equality

By Hillar, Annie | Conscience, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Counteracting the Antichoice Threat in Eastern Europe: Women's Groups Know from Bitter Experience That States Are Too Willing to Pay Lip Service to Women's Equality


Hillar, Annie, Conscience


SINCE THE FALL OF THE BERLIN Wall in 1989, much has changed in the landscape of women s reproductive freedom and rights in Central and Eastern Europe. However, these changes have not all been for the better. With the accession of eight Central European countries to the European Union in 2004, and with Bulgaria and Romania looking to join the EU in 2007, questions have been raised about where women's reproductive rights are headed. Especially controversial is the issue of abortion.

To understand the future, it is crucial to know the past. Much has been written about the status of abortion in Eastern Europe during the postwar period. On the surface, Eastern bloc countries, compared to those in the West, prioritized women's reproductive rights as a cornerstone of their project of women's emancipation. Women in many countries had the legal right to abortion starting from the 1950s. In contrast, some countries in the West did not pass abortion laws until the late 1970s (Italy), others not until the 1980s (Greece). Belgium did not pass abortion legislation until 1990, and even today abortion is almost completely illegal in countries like Portugal and Ireland.

However, the real situation in the Eastern bloc was much more ambiguous and access to abortion shifted over time to meet the political agendas of individual states. In 1956, Hungary overturned its strict abortion law and allowed for abortion on request. Less than 20 years later, due to a decline in the birthrate, it once again tightened its abortion policy by limiting it to unmarried women, those with two children, women over 35 or those who lived in poverty. However, in Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, even if a woman met these conditions she was still required to take her case to state-appointed committees who determined if her claim was justified.

Even in Romania the situation was not as clear as it seemed. Here too the issue of demographics and state politics came into play. The Ceausescu regime overturned Romania's previously liberal abortion policies in 1966 by introducing draconian legislation that prohibited abortion except if the woman's life was in danger, she was over the age of 45, the pregnancy was a result of rape, there was a risk of passing a hereditary disease on to the child or the woman already had four children. However, these restrictions were loosely enforced when it came to Romania's minorities such as its sizeable ethnic Hungarian and Roma populations. Certain types of citizen were less valuable than others in the country's attempts to increase its birthrate. And we should remember that the state's policies were not very closely aligned with the will of the people; the day after Ceausescu was assassinated, abortion was once again legalized.

It is important to note that throughout this period abortion was used as the major means of contraception in communist Eastern Europe. Women could not access contraceptives because of a lack of financial resources and information and the limited reproductive health services provided by the state. Even today, abortion is the most common form of family planning. In Bulgaria there are approximately 700 abortions per 1,000 live births; in Romania there are an estimated three abortions per live birth and about 60 percent of all pregnancies in Russia end in abortion. (ASTRA Network, 2006)

DEBATING ABORTION TODAY

The abortion debate today reflects the ongoing struggles of a region in which secular states clash with those that consider their identities in religious terms, where the birthrates of minority populations continue to rise relative to the majority and where the East's economic transition has yielded uneven results. What is new to the debate are the tools employed by states and citizens to push forward their demands.

Integration into the European Union has been a key goal of many Central European states. These states have had to establish institutions and appoint representatives to EU bodies as part of the harmonization process with EU laws and bodies and these offices have often become mouthpieces for a country's stance on abortion. …

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