In Liberal Europe, Abortion Laws Come With Their Own Restrictions

While some U.S. policymakers are motivated by morality, other nations see babies as a common good.
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A protester opposed to abortion demonstrates outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 2012. (AP)

I'm a native of North Carolina, which just passed a stunningly restrictive new abortion law, and I'm currently living in China, where abortion is cheap, government-funded, and common. So recently, I began wondering which countries have the most liberal abortion laws, and how lax these laws actually are. I assumed that Western Europe would be the land of abortion on demand, likely government-subsidized, and possibly with a free bag of condoms afterward. But as it turns out, abortion laws in Europe are both more restrictive and more complicated than that.

Waiting periods, decried by American pro-choicers as infantilizing and unreasonably burdensome, are common in Western Europe.

In Germany, women seeking first-trimester abortions are subject to a mandatory three-day waiting period and a counseling session. Abortions after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are forbidden except in cases of grave threat to the mother's physical or mental health. The Netherlands mandates a five-day waiting period between initial consultation and abortion; clinics must provide women with information about abortion alternatives. Abortion is then legal until viability (legally defined as 24 weeks, usually interpreted as 22 weeks). In Belgium, where abortion was illegal until 1990, there's a six-day waiting period and the woman must claim to be in "a state of distress" before receiving a first-trimester abortion.

Many Western European countries have what might seem like odd requirements and exceptions to their abortion laws.

In Finland (home of the now-famous Finnish baby boxes and other enviable government benefits), abortion is available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, unless the woman is under 17 years old, in which case she may have an abortion until she's 20 weeks pregnant. But even for early abortions, women must provide a "social reason" for seeking to terminate her pregnancy, such as poverty, extreme distress, or already having at least four children. While in practice most abortion requests are granted, it still forces women to prove to an authority the validity of their desire not to have a baby. In Denmark, abortion is available on demand up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Afterward, exceptions are made for cases of rape, threats to the woman's physical or mental health, risk of fetal defects, and -- revealingly -- in cases where the woman can demonstrate lack of financial resources to care for a child.

Israel (though not part of Europe, obviously) has similarly idiosyncratic requirements and restrictions. Though 93 percent of American Jews support abortion rights in all or most cases, and the Torah has little to say about abortion, the Jewish state of Israel has fairly heavy-handed abortion laws. Abortion is illegal for married women between ages 17 and 40, except in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or risk to the mother's physical or mental health. Women eligible for abortions (the unmarried ones, that is) must submit to ultrasounds, wade through rivers of paperwork, and plead their case to an expert.

Eastern Europe, a stronghold of liberal abortion laws under Communism, has become increasingly strict of late. Russia recently passed a law restricting abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and Russian clinics are also now forced to give (medically dubious) warnings about the health risks of abortion, which supposedly include cancer and infertility. After the fall of the USSR, Poland enacted some of Europe's strictest abortion laws , banning the procedure except in cases of rape, fetal malformation, or serious threats to the woman's health. The Ukraine is currently threatening to follow suit.

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Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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