Development & Aid, Europe, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Women's Health

HUMAN RIGHTS-SLOVAKIA: Barriers Go Up For Abortion

Pavol Stracansky

BRATISLAVA, Jun 26 2009 (IPS) - Rights groups in Slovakia have attacked new abortion legislation they say not only breaches women’s rights to privacy and regulations on medical confidentiality but could force some women into undergoing risky, illegal abortions.

Under the legislation, approved last week, women who want abortions will only be able to undergo the procedure two days after they have been given official advice on the ‘risks and alternatives’ by their doctor. Information about them, including an identity number given to every Slovak at birth, will also be sent to a state health information institute.

The age at which adolescents have to gain their parents’ informed consent for an abortion has also been raised from 16 to 18.

But the legislation continues to allow abortion on request up until 12 weeks of pregnancy and until 24 weeks if the foetus has a genetic defect or the woman’s life or health is in danger.

Christina Zampas, senior legal advisor for Europe at the Centre for Reproductive Rights, told IPS: “This is the first time that an EU member state has managed to create significant barriers to women accessing abortion.

“This runs against a worldwide trend of liberalisation of abortion laws which reflect the fact that creating barriers to abortion does not reduce abortion numbers, it merely endangers women’s health and rights.”

MPs from the ruling coalition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party and far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) who proposed the laws have dismissed the concerns from women’s rights groups.

Stefan Zelnik of the SNS told Slovak media after the law was passed by parliament: “I am convinced that after (women receive) this qualified counselling the number of terminations will fall, which is what we want – to allow life for everything that has a chance of life.”

The number of abortions in Slovakia in 2007 – the latest year for which figures are available – was 336 per 1,000 live births, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The country’s maternal mortality rate for 2002 – the most recent year in which the figures were available – was 1.97 per 100,000 live births, according to the WHO.

Pro life groups welcomed the legislation, which has yet to be signed into law by the president, saying it would, among other things, help stop sexual abuse as girls would have to inform their parents before they could terminate their pregnancies.

But women’s rights groups have said passages in the law, especially the raising of the age at which parental consent must be given for the procedure, will make many women and young girls scared of being open about their plans for abortion and lead them to opting for risky operations.

Jana Debrecienova from the Citizen and Democracy Foundation in Bratislava told IPS: “This legislation puts obstacles in the path of women having an abortion which could lead them to having either dangerous underground abortions or going ahead with risky pregnancies.

“The law says that women must be given counselling on the risks of abortion as well as ‘alternatives’ such as anonymous birth and adoption. But that counselling will be biased and will include non-medical advice. Part of it will see doctors giving women contacts to NGOs dealing with abortion issues, and these must by law include religious groups. This breaks constitutional law on the separation of state and religion.

Zampas from the Centre for Reproductive Rights told IPS: “The passage in the law on adolescents and informed consent is very troubling. It raises questions of the legal rights of adolescents and women to medical confidentiality.”

Debrecienova added: “The law creates a number of barriers to women’s right to freely decide on abortion and limit women’s access to this health care service. It conflicts with the Slovak Constitution, international agreements Slovakia has signed, and the recommendations of the WHO.”

The controversial law comes as women’s rights groups warn that a combination of a societal shift to the right on the back of worsening economic conditions and the historical strong influence of the Catholic Church in some of the former eastern bloc states has seen a rise in strength and support for pro-life organisations in the region.

“Part of the reason behind this move is the strength of the Catholic Church in Slovakia. In other countries in Eastern Europe where the Catholic Church is strong, pro-life groups have been gaining strength as well,” Zampas told IPS.

Under communism women’s access to abortion in many eastern bloc countries was relatively free. Some of the current abortion legislation in states in the region dates back to the communist regimes.

In staunchly Catholic neighbouring Poland the abortion laws are among the most restrictive in the world. The procedure is only allowed in the event of rape, incest or if the mother’s health is at risk.

“Politicians do almost nothing to deal with long-term problems faced by women like public and private discrimination or violence against them. So it is absurd that they are forcing something on us which is supposed to be good for us despite the fact that we do not think it is,” Debrecienova told IPS.

Republish | | Print |