The Council of Europe Presses Member States to Lift All Restrictions on Abortion

Steven Mosher
by Carlos Beltramo
05 May 2008
Vol. 10 / No. 18
Reproduced with Permission
Population Research Institute

A resolution approved by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is demanding that its 47 member states "legalize abortion if they have not done so." Although legally non-binding, the resolution not only effectively endorses the "right" to kill the unborn, it puts pressure on nations to lift any and all restrictions on abortion throughout the whole continent.

The resolution, named "Access to Safe and Legal Abortion in Europe," was approved by a vote of 102-69, with 69 abstentions. (See). The full text of the resolution is available at the official website of the Council of Europe. (See)

The first section of the resolution states: "The Parliamentary Assembly reaffirms that abortion can in no circumstances be regarded as a family planning method." (Resolution, n. 1). While this statement sounds pro-life, in fact it has the opposite intent. What the Council of Europe is actually demanding is that the countries in which abortion is permitted, but carefully restricted, make the procedure readily available to all women who ask for it. Abortion on demand, in other words.

Although the Parliamentary Assembly's decision is non-binding on member states, it puts pressure on the Council of Europe to make abortion an unconditional "right." Even without a formal and binding decision from the Council of Europe, the resolution has a certain moral force, and can be used to intimidate countries such as Poland into establishing a "right to abortion."

Gisela Wurm, an Austrian Socialist parliamentarian, was the chief promoter of the resolution. She was at pains to explain that the resolution is intended to ensure that "society can protect women who don't want to continue with their pregnancies." She made no mention of particular countries. In fact, however, the resolution is clearly targeted at three countries which forbid all abortions: Ireland, Poland, and Malta.

Much of the resolution simply details the current European status quo. It reads: "In most of the Council of Europe member states the law permits abortion in order to save the woman's life for a number of reasons including to preserve physical and mental health, rape and incest, fetal impairment, economic and social reasons and in some countries on request.". The only three European countries that do not conform to this standard are, once again, Ireland, Poland, and Malta. The seventh paragraph of the resolution--although it doesn't name names--is clearly directed at these holdouts. It states, "The Assembly invites the member states of the Council of Europe to ... decriminalize abortion within reasonable gestational limits, if they have not already done so."

Abortion in Ireland has been illegal since the founding of the Republic. The operant law, the "Offences Against the Person Act," was inherited from the United Kingdom. Under this Act, procuring or performing an abortion is an "unlawful" act, with both the person performing the abortion and the pregnant woman subject to imprisonment. While Great Britain later changed its laws to allow abortion up to 20 weeks gestation, Ireland moved in the opposite direction. The 1983 abortion referendum added even stronger anti-abortion language to the Irish Constitution. A 1992 decision by the Supreme Court of Ireland weakened the Offences Against the Person Act by ruling that an abortion could be lawfully performed if the continuation of the pregnancy would cause substantial risk to the woman's life. This decision aside, Ireland today has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

The legal situation in Malta is even more straightforward, and thus poses even more of an irritant to the pro-abortion lobby. The Criminal Code of Malta simply prohibits abortion under all circumstances. Moreover, when Malta joined the Council of Europe, it insisted on the following condition: It would not change its laws concerning human life.

Abortion resolution or no, Malta is not about to back down. In the words of Maltese lawmaker Leo Brincat: "It is impossible to legalize abortion" in Malta. Even the country's socialists oppose the practice.

In Poland, abortion is illegal except for certain narrow exceptions. Moreover, it is as a practical matter, almost impossible to obtain. The Population Policy Data Bank of the U.N. Population Division notes that "the pregnant [Polish] woman would be required to undergo counseling, give written consent to the operation, and wait three days after the counseling until the abortion took place. . . At the same time, growing numbers of physicians and hospitals refused to perform abortions, as they were allowed to do under a conscience clause contained in the law. In some cities, there were no public institutions willing to perform abortions, leaving private clinics with much higher fees as the only resort for women seeking abortions. Some estimates were that almost half of all public hospitals in Poland had adopted this approach to the issue."

The resolution itself recounts in detail the various roadblocks that the country of Pope John Paul II has placed in the way of abortion: "The Assembly also notes that, in member states where abortion is permitted for a number of reasons, conditions are not always such as to guarantee women effective access to this right: the lack of local health care facilities, the lack of doctors willing to carry out abortions, the repeated medical consultations required, the time allowed for changing one's mind and the waiting time for the abortion all have the potential to make access to safe, affordable, acceptable and appropriate abortion services more difficult, or even impossible in practice."

Pope John Paul II would be proud of his nation, as well as of the other two. They constitute three small holdouts of Christian decency against a continent that has accepted the barbarism of abortion.

The Council of Europe is not happy with this deviation from the prevailing cultural line. It is attempting to use its diplomatic clout to bludgeon these three countries into line. Let us hope that it does not succeed.

Carlos Beltramo is a PRI correspondent, European Union.