11. Dezember 2020

Reproductive health beyond the protests: Quo vadis, Europe?

In part one we wrote about the ongoing demonstrations against new restrictions on reproductive rights in Poland. We looked at the historical development, the influence of the Catholic Church and the chances of the current protests. Now, we want to contextualise the restrictions in Poland through commenting on the European responses to limitations to reproductive rights.

A Comment by Veronika Datzer and Nathalie Kornet


Reproductive rights in times of a global pandemic

In times of a global pandemic which has demonstrated the underfunded nature of public health care systems across Europe, reproductive rights have been particularly challenged. Safe and timely access to abortion remains essential, yet in reality, very few member states have implemented means to ensure that their public health services offer telehealth or medical abortion. In countries where legal abortions are performed, women* and other pregnant people have been refused access with officials citing ‘suspensions of non-emergency surgery’ as one of the reasons. 

According to the BBC, during the height of the pandemic, only very few hospitals offered abortion services in Romania, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia. In cases where legal abortions are not accessible in the country of residence, travel to countries where abortion is legal has become extremely limited. Postal delays made it difficult to rely on medical abortion. In other words, women*’s and reproductive rights are further limited as a result of the pandemic in many European countries where abortion was heavily restricted or illegal anyway.

The political vacuum of the Covid-19 pandemic is rather used by anti-abortion advocats to push their agendas for more restrictions. In Poland, protests sparked after a constitutional court ruling that ruled abortion due to fetal defects unconstitutional, thereby criminalising 98 percent of current legal justifications for abortions. This is only one of the many methodical moves of Poland and other states to hurt reproductive rights for their women. 

Poland and Hungary recently signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration which highlights the non-existence of an “international right to abortion”. Additionally, Poland and Turkey announced this summer that they want to leave the Istanbul Convention which aims at fighting gendered domestic violence. Reasons stated by both countries were the convention’s discordance with social, cultural or religious norms. 

We must expect a certain kind of stagnation in the context of different European and global anti-gender movements and different restrictions on women*’s and reproductive rights, unfortunately. Growing conservatism – in some cases heavily influenced by the Catholic Church – is responsible for demographic concerns and the threat to reproductive rights by nationalists and populists. Malta has completly forbidden the practice of abortion. Ireland, the former enfant terrible, has legalised abortions whilst in Germany, abortion is still considered an offense yet is decriminalised under certain circumstances. 

The prominent case of Kristina Hänel showed that public information and advertisements for abortions are exempt from this decriminalisation. The gynocologist had informed potential patients of the abortion services available via her website and was convicted to a penalty payment of 2500€. In Slovakia, where Covid was also instrumentalised to further restrict reproductive rights, the Slovak Parliament luckily succeeded in rejecting the proposal which sought to implement a mandatory waiting time of 96 hours prior to an abortion appointment.  Public perception of the right to abortion has become more critical. According to a recent poll by ipsosMORI, “the number of people who supported abortion rights declined in eight European nations.”  

But what are the legal foundations of abortion and reproductive rights in Europe onto which the protests can build? What have the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights done to ensure reproductive rights? How does the Europe Union position itself to restrictions of abortion rights, both legally and politically? And what can Germany’s current EU Council presidency do?


Reproductive rights at EtCHRlevel

An important starting point is the European Court of Human Rights (EtCHR). But even there the right to abortion is a topic handled inadequately. The ECtHR as Europe’s central human rights institution has so far abstained from pronouncing a clear substantive right to the access to abortion in its jurisprudence. In several cases against countries with (formerly) restrictive abortion regimes, including Poland, the Court tended to take procedural approaches, and refer to the so-called margin of appreciation. 

The margin of appreciation describes “the room for manoeuvre the Strasbourg institutions are prepared to accord national authorities in fulfilling their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.” As the summary of the following cases will show, the Court demonstrates a certain unwillingness in balancing the question of abortion with the right to life and sets very minimal requirements for a country to fulfill concerning the access to abortion. It also becomes evident that the ECtHR does not analyse abortion sufficiently as a gendered and intersectional topic. 

There is no denying that women* and other people who can get pregnant suffer unduly under restrictive abortion regimes. Travelling abroad to receive an abortion is not easy for many people, e.g. due to financial or care work reasons. So far, the Court has namely excluded Article 14, which inter alia prohibits discrimination based on sex and social origin, in its abortion jurisprudence.

The central jurisprudence of the ECtHR that touches upon the topic of abortion primarily deals with Article 2 (Right to Life), Article 3 (Prohibition of Torture, Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment) and Article 8 (Right to Private and Family Life) of the Convention. Starting with the difficult question of life, in the case of Vo vs. France, the ECtHR discussed whether the life of an unborn fetus falls under the scope of protection of Article 2. The Court answered that it is neither desirable nor possible to answer this question, since there has never been scientific, moral or legal consensus. Furthermore, by referring to the margin of appreciation, the ECtHR did not adopt a definition of when life starts and referred to the diverse approaches taken by EU member states. In other cases, however, the ECtHR stated that life of the unborn can be limited inter alia to protect the mother’s life, or for socio-economic reasons.

Decisions taken concerning Article 2 are essential in the Court’s approach to the right of abortion as a Right to Private and Family life (Article 8) under the European Convention on Human Rights. There have been a handful of cases, notably against Ireland and Poland – the past and the current enfants terribles in Europe – that have so far defined the Court’s approach. Two cases should be mentioned here. 

First, the case of A, B & C vs. Ireland, where three women sued the Republic of Ireland as they had to travel to the UK to receive an abortion. The ECtHR decided that “Article 8 cannot […] be interpreted as conferring a right to abortion” and that there is no so-called “substantive” right to abortion. The Court argues that taking such moral decisions (meaning balancing the conflicting rights of the mother and the unborn) fell under the Margin of Appreciation and was thus a state’s responsibility. In the A, B & C case however, the Court also indirectly set minimal standards regarding the access to and information on abortion. A person’s life must not be endangered by a country’s restriction; on the other hand, information about abortion must be provided and there should be an accessible way to travel abroad for an abortion.

In the second landmark case of Tysiąc vs. Poland, the Court decided that an abortion must not only be available de jure, meaning legally, but also de facto, meaning in practice. Mrs. Tysiąc took legal action after being denied the right to an abortion on health grounds and suffering from health issues after giving birth. The Court decided in her favor and argued that countries in the EU must provide proper access to abortion and timely information in cases that clearly fall under a country’s abortion laws. Denying legal access to abortion was thus considered a breach of the Right to Private and Family Life (Article 8). Further cases against Poland and Ireland confirmed these procedural obligations countries have to fulfill and in some cases even went so far, that the impossibility to fulfil these obligations meant the breach of Article 3, namely the Prohibition of Torture and Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading treatment.

In sum, the European Court of Human Rights shows an unwillingness to clearly pronounce a substantive right to abortion for member states and consider it a gendered and intersectional issue. It prefers referring to the margin of appreciation or taking a procedural approach in cases concerning the right to abortion. But in terms of the current developments in Poland, a reconsideration of current jurisprudence is required: The Court needs to acknowledge the retrogressiveness of Polish Law and de facto ban of abortion, as well as consider intersectional discrimination in restrictions on reproductive rights.


EU reactions to Strajk Kobiet 

In light of the current protests in Poland, the European Parliament (EP) in particular has been an active advocate in the EU to take action against the Polish abortion ban across all parties (although its influence remains limited). MEP Sylwia Spurek, the Greens/EFA Vice Chair of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee in the European Parliament, has called the European Commission and Council “to protect the rights of women and all citizens from the whims of the government.” 

This was followed by protesters outside the Parliament dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopia ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Expressing solidarity with the protestors on social media, MEPs engaged in the protests beyond party faction. A letter signed by the presidents of the five political groups in the European Parliament to the Polish Prime minister calls out the “unprecedented attack on women’s rights in Poland“ and signals solidarity with the protestors. It criticises the undemocratic nature of the ruling, the discrimination of women, and raises concerns over the judiciary review.

Terry Reintke, MEP for the Greens/EFA, also calls on the EU to act: “The German Council Presidency and the European Commission cannot watch the rule of law in Poland being undermined by the government’s attacks on the independence of the judiciary. Women’s rights are human rights; the right to safe and legal abortion must not be compromised“, she writes. Liberal Polish MP Monika Rosa added “Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and this politicised ruling adds more restrictions. This illegal and politicised order is an assault to women’s basic rights and a direct threat to their health and lives.” The outcry of MEPs seems to have an effect: On November 9, 2020, the FEMM Committee issued a draft report on “The situation of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health.”

The Estrela report on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (2013/20040 (INI)) was one of the most significant advances which called on member states to ensure safe and timely access to abortion. Unfortunately, there was no majority in the EP, instead a conservative counter-resolution succeeded which stated that issues of reproductive health were a matter of the member states. Although the outcry regarding the increasing restrictions in Poland has been loud, it therefore remains to be seen whether the European Parliament’s advances bear any fruit.


Poland and the EU – a complex relationship

Beyond the MEP protest, the EU’s reactions to restrictions of reproductive rights in Poland are defined by its politically and legally complex relationship with Poland. To date, the European Commission and Council have not expressed opposition to the new restrictions on reproductive rights. Instead, the Commission has announced that it will provide 1 billion Euro in funding for Poland to cope with Covid.

The European Union cannot prevent restrictions on reproductive rights legally; according to its treaties, abortion law is a member state competency. However, the EU is a value-based community: Its Charter of Fundamental Rights calls for dignity, freedoms, equality, and citizens’ rights. Further, it has adopted the UN Resolution on Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs and Rights in 2002. At the time of adoption, it called on member states to ensure reproductive rights, yet it failed to ensure sexual and reproductive rights everywhere in the Union.

Apart from lacking legal competencies, the historically close interaction between politics and religion in Poland has also limited the EU’s responses to restrictions to reproductive rights. At the time of accession to the European Union, the Catholic Church and a majority of Poland’s society viewed the accession to the EU rather critically. The Polish government therefore needed the support of the Church to gain acceptance for accession, and in return promised to consider Catholic values in its positions towards the European Union. 

On 20th January 2003, the clerical members of the joint commission of government and bishopric were successful in adding an additional declaration to the accession agreement which guaranteed the “protection of the unborn life”, de facto freezing the state of the art women and family politics. And the European Union has so far accepted Poland’s demand of maintaining ‘cultural exception’ with regards to reproductive rights. Ireland and Malta, too, agreed on the so-called sovereignty clauses with the EU “making them immune to the EU’s incursion into “moral issues, especially abortion laws.” 

The EU’s political responses to the abortion ban in Poland need to be considered in the context of the broader tensions between EU and Poland over Poland’s illiberal course and neglect of principles of the rule of law. It is important to note that the recent restrictions were only possible because of the diminishing rule of law in Poland: Only as the judicial system in Poland has lost its independence and legitimacy, the current prohibition was able to be put in place. This mirrors what Leader of the Polish Women’s Strike Marta Lampart has said about the protests: “When we protest in front of the tribunals offices, we will not only be protesting against violating women’s rights in Poland but against the destruction of the rule of law.” 

The lack of rule of law and illiberal politics in Poland have long been condemned by the European Commission. Beyond criticism, however, there have been no consequences for populist governments. Instead, Poland does not back down and effectively expresses its opposition to EU criticism: In early November, the Polish government vetoed the EU’s budget due to payments being connected to adherence with the rule of law. The European Union, it seems, remains paralysed by Poland’s illiberal course and the very legal restrictions it has in expressing criticism over Poland’s restrictions on reproductive rights.

During its current presidency of the Council of the European Union, Germany leads the negotiations with Poland (and Hungary) over the rule of law and the EU’s budget. The presidency organises and chairs the meetings for the Council, sets the order on propositions to be discussed, coordinates national policies, and brokers compromises. It can therefore be central in a clearer position against the restrictions on reproductive rights in Poland and beyond. Germany surely acknowledges the importance of human rights and should use its role now in the fight for abortion rights. A renewed commitment to gender equality, and the right to sexual and reproductive health by the EU empowers women, civil organisations, and young politicians in their opposition to the restrictions to women’s rights.


These are our recommendations for the German EU Council presidency

  • Maintain the position that the EU budget ought to be coupled to the rule of law
  • Publicly oppose the decisions by the Polish court to further restrict the abortion legislation in Poland
  • Ensure Polish citizens the possibility to travel across the border to Germany for safe abortions, especially due to the increasing restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic on reproductive rights/ensure women can travel for abortion
  • Publicly recognise in accordance with other member states that the denial of safe and timely access to abortion is as a form of discrimination against women
  • Call on the European Council to publicly acknowledge the right to safe and timely abortions 
  • Call on the European Commission to implement the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women (CEDAW)
  • Call on the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, to create dialogue for a more gender-sensitive and intersectional jurisprudence
  • Call on all Member States to draft national action plans to implement UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security
  • Call on all Member States to provide sex education at school age
  • Call on all Member States to ensure timely access to contraceptives, including emergency contraception 
  • Call on all Member States to include abortion services in the public health coverage 
  • Call on Member States to ensure training medical personnel on queer reproductive health, as not only cis-women get pregnant


During Germany’s 2020 EU Council presidency, we will publish several articles in English and German analysing some of the German priorities in the EU, e.g. climate change, how to deal with threats to free speech, recovery plan for Europe, Brexit, digitisation, multilateralism and rule of law. Until the end of the year, when Portugal will take over the presidency for 6 months. 

This project is supported by the German Foreign Office. 

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The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via Soja Photography 



Reproduktive Freiheit über den Protest hinaus: Quo vadis, Europa?

In Teil 1 haben wir über die aktuellen Demonstrationen im Zeichen des Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet in Polen geschrieben und uns dabei die historisch-politischen Entwicklungen, den Einfluss der katholischen Kirche und die Aussichtschancen für den feministischen Widerstand angeschaut. In diesem Beitrag geht es nun darum, restriktive Abtreibungsgesetze z.B. in Polen im EU-Kontext zu analysieren. Mitten in der Corona-Pandemie – im State-of-Emergency – zeigt sich, dass reproduktive Rechte besonders herausgefordert sind. In einigen EU-Mitgliedstaaten wurde der Zugang zu legalen Abtreibungen verwehrt. Wo Abtreibungen illegal sind, wurde die Reise in Nachbarländer erschwert. Mit anderen Worten, Frauen- und reproduktive Rechte werden weiter eingeschränkt. Zum Teil wird das politische Vakuum in der Pandemie von Abtreibungsgegner*innern für die eigenen Ziele öffentlich ausgenutzt.  

Was kann auf EU-Ebene getan werden? Eine entscheidende Ebene ist die des Europäische Gerichtshofs für Menschenrechte (EGMR), wo bisher noch nicht allgemein Stellung dazu genommen wurde, und wo Abtreibungen nach wie vor nicht mit Bezug auf Gender und Intersektionalität verstanden wird. Nur Artikel 14 der Europäischen Menschenrechtskonvention umfasst ein EU-weites Diskriminierungsverbot. Obwohl nach einigen bekannten Fällen, in denen Frauen für ihre reproduktiven Rechte kämpften, der Gerichtshof Mitgliedstaaten zum Zugang zu (legalen) Abtreibungen verpflichtet, braucht es vielmehr eine übergeordnete rechtsstaatliche Haltung gegenüber Polens restriktiven Gesetzen.

Bezüglich der aktuellen Proteste in Polen spricht sich vor allem das EU-Parlament als Befürworter für einheitlicheres Engagement gegen das kürzlich beschlossene Abtreibungsverbot aus, obwohl sein politischer Einfluss recht limitiert ist. MdEP’s protestierten gar verkleidet als Handmaids aus Margaret Atwoods Klassiker ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ vor dem Gebäude in Brüssel. Seitens des EU-Rats und der EU-Kommission konnte indes wenig Empörung verzeichnet werden, was daran liegt, dass die EU auf supranationaler Ebene keine rechtlichen Einschränkungen der reproduktiven Rechte verhindern kann, denn sie sind Ländersache. 

Davon abgesehen sind die historisch engen Verbindungen zwischen Politik und Religion in Polen auch der Grund, weswegen die EU ohnehin wenig Einfluss auf innenpolitische Entwicklungen nehmen kann. Das rührt aus den Anfängen der Mitgliedschaft 2004, wogegen sich die katholische Kirche und ein großer Teil der polnischen Gesellschaft ursprünglich aussprachen. Um genügend Zuspruch für den EU-Beitritt zu erhalten, brauchte die polnische Regierung die Kirche jedoch und versprach im Gegenzug katholische Werte in der EU zu fördern. 2003, kurz vor Beitritt, wurde eine Extraklausel eingebaut, welche den Schutz des ungeborenen Lebens sichern soll. 

Die EU bezieht sich seither auf die Prinzipien der Rechtsstaatlichkeit, die de facto von Polen zum Teil ignoriert werden. Aktuell finden sich die Ausmaße des anhaltenden Gegensatzes zur Einhaltung und Wahrung der europäischen Werte in den Verhandlungen um das EU-Budget wieder. Gekoppelt an finanziellen Mitteln sind die Prinzipien der Rechtsstaatlichkeit. Deutschland führt während seiner EU-Ratspräsidentschaft die Verhandlungen und unterstützt die Einhaltung rechtsstaatlicher Werte national und international mit Nachdruck. Was wir jetzt fordern:

  • kein Abweichen von der Position, die Prinzipien an EU-Gelder zu knüpfen
  • sich öffentlich gegen das polnische Gerichtsurteil zum Abtreibungsverbot auszusprechen
  • die Reise nach oder durch Deutschland für Pol*innen sicherzustellen, gerade in Zeiten der Pandemie, wo legale Abtreibungen durch Reiseeinschränkungen unmöglich werden 
  • ein öffentliches Aussprechen zusammen mit anderen EU-Mitgliedstaaten dafür, dass eine Verweigerung des Zugangs zu legalen Abtreibungen eine Form der Diskriminierung gegenüber Frauen ist und bleibt
  • den Europäischen Rat zu ermutigen, sich öffentlich für sichere, legale Abtreibungen auszusprechen
  • die Europäische Kommission zu ermutigen, die CEDAW zu implementieren 
  • zusammen mit der Menschenrechtskommissarin Dunja Mijatović einen wirksameren Dialog über gender-sensitives und intersektionales Recht auf den Weg zu bringen
  • andere Mitgliedstaaten zu ermutigen, die UN Resolution 1325 zu implementieren 
  • das Thema sexuelle Aufklärung in Schulen europaweit zu fördern
  • die medizinische Versorgung (wie Verhütungsmittel) für Frauen in ganz Europa sicherzustellen

Veronika beendet momentan ihr Masterstudium zu Cyberdiplomatie in Berlin und Potsdam und arbeitet bei der Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. In früheren Stationen in Freiburg, Auckland, Paris und New York beschäftigte sie sich mit dem Nexus Sicherheitspolitik und feministische Außenpolitik, vor allem in Themen der Friedenssicherung, nuklearen Abrüstung und neuen Technologien. Sie engagiert sich im Polis-Programm Gender und Internationale Politik und in der Lebenshilfe Berlin.

Nathalie machte ihren Liberal Arts and Sciences Bachelor in Freiburg sowie in Montreal und studiert seit kurzem Internationale Beziehungen in Berlin und Potsdam. Sie interessiert sich für (queer)feministische Theorien, Menschenrechte, Rechtssoziologie und Nachhaltigkeit und hat sich für ihre Bachelorarbeit mit dem Abtreibungsrecht in Polen sowie auf europäischer Ebene auseinandergesetzt. Sie arbeitete bereits für das Deutsche Institut für Menschenrechte und ist nebenbei aktivistisch im feministischen Bereich aktiv, insbesondere im Bezug auf Menstruationssichtbarkeit.


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