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In Europe, abortion foes heighten efforts, gain traction
Shifting social policies debated in some countries
By Elisabeth Rosenthal, International Herald Tribune | July 31, 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 antiabortion group, the traveling exhibition, which has moved on to Lublin, personifies an aggressive, well-financed, and growing conservative movement across Europe that not only opposes 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 antiabortion 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 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.
For example, Anna Zaborska of Slovakia, the new chairwoman of the European Parliament Committee for Women's Rights and Gender Equality, opposes abortion.
''Antiabortion 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 antiabortion 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, according to the Polish Ministry of Health.
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 antiabortion 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 prolife 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 antiabortion group based in Virginia.
In France and Italy, youth groups are now lecturing in schools and organizing marches, promoting abstinence and an antiabortion 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 payment for both abortion and contraception by national health plans. 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 the 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.
Nowicka said 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 Eastern 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 on school curriculums, including sex education. In Slovakia, where abortion is legal, Christian antiabortion supporters mark March 25 as the ''Day of the Conceived Child."
But many also cite global political trends, such as the Bush administration's decision to promote abstinence as the preferred form of birth control.
''Those who oppose a woman's choice have become stronger and louder because the international atmosphere supports them," said Esmeralda Kuliesyte of Lithuania, who leads the Family Planning and Sexual Health Association in Vilnius.