TV & Radio
Across Europe, a broad assault by abortion foes
By Elisabeth Rosenthal International Herald Tribune
WEDNESDAY, JULY 27, 2005
WARSAW For most of July, pedestrians in the Polish city of Lodz found themselves face-to-face with 14 grisly billboards pairing images of aborted fetuses with photographs of blood-spattered corpses - victims of genocide in Srebrenica or Rwanda, toddlers killed in the Oklahoma City bombing attack.
Placed by a Polish anti-abortion group, the traveling exhibition, which has moved on to Lublin, is part of an aggressive, well-financed and growing conservative movement across Europe that opposes not only abortion but also contraception, sex education, artificial insemination and gay rights.
Encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church, enabled by the election of conservative governments in many countries and financed in part by anti-abortion groups in the United States, the movement has made powerful inroads in countries where a full array of women's health services were once taken for granted.
These include Poland, Italy, Slovakia, Lithuania and even the Netherlands, where the new Christian Democratic secretary of health has suggested a review of that country's liberal abortion law.
"It's gotten worse in many places over the last two to three years, as more Christian Democrat and conservative governments have come to power," said Rebecca Gomperts, founder of the Dutch abortion rights group Women on Waves.
Anna Zaborska of Slovakia, for example, the new chairwoman of the European Parliament Committee for Women's Rights and Gender Equality, opposes abortion.
"Anti-abortion groups have become much more active and successful at influencing public opinion, and they have money and the mobilizing power of the church behind them," Gomperts said.
The consequences are varied but perhaps nowhere more dramatic than in Poland, where abortion was free - and freely accessible - under Communism.
Today, a relatively restrictive abortion law (which refers to the fetus as a "conceived child"), coupled with strong social stigma and an anti-abortion stance among doctors' groups, has led to a situation in which only 174 legal abortions were performed nationwide in 2004 - and tens of thousands of illegal abortions were carried out.
In Poland, the battle is so intense that the country's leading gynecology journal recently refused to publish the World Health Organization's guidelines on "Safe Practices in Abortion," calling them "reprehensible."
"Abortion is not safe, because a patient who undergoes such treatment always dies," wrote Andrzej Barcz, editor of Practical Medicine-Obstetrics and Gynecology.
International anti-abortion groups point out that their influence in Europe, where abortion has popular support and is generally available, is still much weaker than in the United States or Latin America. But they are thrilled with the new activity.
"There are now a lot of pro-life groups working in Europe, but they are fairly young - formed in the last five or 10 years," said Joseph Meaney, international director of Human Life International, a powerful Catholic anti-abortion group based in Virginia.
In countries like France and Italy, youth groups are now lecturing in schools and organizing marches, promoting abstinence and an anti-abortion message. Meaney said this was due, in part, to the "John Paul II effect," noting that the charismatic late pope, who held appeal for youth, had strongly opposed abortion and contraception.
In Europe, only Ireland, Portugal, Malta and Poland have strict legal limits on abortion. But many countries that permit abortion are considering new limits on the practice or are restricting national health plans' payment for both abortion and contraception. As in the United States, access to the procedure is also increasingly limited by taboos, costs for patients and the objections or fears of doctors.
In Poland, the law permits abortion if a woman's health is in danger or if genetic defects have been detected in the fetus. But, said Wanda Nowicka, head of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw, "there is now almost no condition that would allow you to get an abortion here." Her group is currently bringing a lawsuit on behalf of a woman who is nearly blind because doctors refused to allow her to abort when she fell ill during pregnancy.
According to Nowicka, 80,000 to 200,000 illegal abortions are performed in Poland every year.
"This country is not conservative, but reproductive health has become highly politicized and stigmatized in the last few years," Nowicka said.
The same trend is apparent in many European countries, with only a few bucking the trend, among them Spain, a Catholic country with a Socialist government.
The Catholic Church has been particularly influential in former East Bloc countries, where it made rapid gains after Communism collapsed more than a decade ago. Croatia and Slovakia, for example, signed treaties with the Vatican that give the church influence over school curriculums, including sex education. In Slovakia, where abortion is technically legal, Christian anti-abortion supporters mark March 25 the "Day of the Conceived Child."
But many also cite global political trends, like the Bush administration's decision to promote abstinence as the preferred form of birth control.
"Those who oppose woman's choice have become stronger and louder because the international atmosphere supports them," said Esmeralda Kuliesyte of Lithuania, who leads the Vilnius-based Family Planning and Sexual Health Association.
"They are strong because of the Bush administration's policies," Kuliesyte said. "They've become rich. They have magazines and Web pages. It's very hard to fight back."
Anti-abortion groups in the United States are increasingly traveling to Europe to help train local activists. "They bring money, leaflets and little plastic embryos," said Olga Pietruchova, director of Prochoice Slovakia.
Human Life International, the Virginia-based anti-abortion group, has an office for Eastern Europe in Gdansk, Poland, and has sent missions to more than a dozen European countries in the past five years, providing funding and seminars on how to promote anti-abortion positions.
In 2003, the European Union warned member states about the aggressive European activities of U.S.-based anti-abortion groups, whose ultimate goal is "no contraception at all, and sex within marriage only," in the words of Poul Nielsen, who was then the European Commissioner for Overseas Development.
Such groups have taught their pupils well: When reports of the Lodz billboards were posted on religious Web sites, readers responded with comments like, "If only we could do that in the U.S."
But there is much homegrown activity as well. In Croatia, where 86 percent of the population is Catholic, the national bishops' conference has joined with other church groups to demand that Parliament ban abortion. The procedure, which was free 10 years ago, now costs up to $600, more than the average monthly salary.
Croatian schools now use a sex education program called Teen Star that promotes abstinence and teaches that the contraceptive pill is dangerous and that condoms do not protect against disease.
When liberal politicians proposed a measure supporting assisted fertility, the bishops blocked it, saying - despite worldwide evidence to the contrary - such technology "brings to life children who are things and not human beings, usually severely damaged," said Sanja Cesar, head of the Center for Education, Counseling and Research in Bratislava.
Women's groups say that strong anti-abortion positions have been promoted by otherwise mainstream politicians with debts to pay. In Poland, the Solidarity movement, which overthrew decades of Communist rule in 1989, received financial and moral support from the Catholic Church when it was still illegal under Communism.
As a result, "when Communism fell, it seems that the only thing politicians cared about was abortion," Nowicka said. The law limiting abortion was passed in 1993 and has held firm despite challenges ever since.
In Italy, the Catholic Church has used its weight to support conservative politicians as they passed an extremely restrictive fertility law, which bans, for example, egg donations for stem cell research.
When Spain recently passed a law permitting gay marriage, Marcello Pera, speaker of Italy's Senate, condemned the decision, saying: "It is a triumph of secularism that seeks to transfer desires and occasional whims into human rights."