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.

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.

So why are Europe's abortion laws not as libertine and laissez-faire as our stereotypes about those countries might suggest?

Here's one way of looking at the difference between abortion laws in Europe and those in the U.S.: in America, abortion laws are about morality, while in Europe, they reflect national ideas of what constitutes the common good.

In America, anti-abortion activists and politicians construe abortion as a clear-cut moral issue: "abortion is murder," "I am a person, not a choice," "It's not right versus left, it's right versus wrong," etc. Exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother are political concessions, not morally consistent positions. If you believe fetuses are people and abortion is murder, why would you think the murder of a person conceived in rape is more okay than the murder of a person conceived in a happy marriage?

In Western Europe, abortion is viewed as part of a larger conversation about the collective good. The Finnish baby boxes I previously mentioned (government handouts that are provided to all new parents, containing clothes and other baby supplies) speak to the fact that children there are viewed as part of building a successful society. Ditto for the generous maternity benefits in the Netherlands, Denmark, and elsewhere.

Paternalistic abortion laws are, perhaps, the flip side of generous government benefits: The government provides amply for the babies you do have, but in return it gets to quiz you about your reproductive choices.

In Russia and other Eastern European countries with steeply declining populations, new abortion restrictions are explicitly aimed at boosting birth rates. The same is true of Israel, perhaps less explicitly. The Israeli restrictions on abortion have more to do with the idea that, as Roni Abramson writes in Haaretz, "The Jewish womb belongs to the Jewish people." The baby of a married Jewish woman is considered a gain for the country that's concerned about maintaining a Jewish majority in the region, so aborting is a social harm.

Of course, when you're a woman being denied an abortion, it doesn't really matter whether it's because your state's Congress thinks abortion is murder or because your country's Prime Minister wants to reverse the declining birthrate.

So what are the countries with the most liberal abortion laws? Canada is a decent candidate, with abortion available on-demand, paid for by Canadian Medicare in most provinces. Though there is no federal criminal law governing abortion at any phase of pregnancy, in practice it is extremely difficult to find a doctor or facility willing to provide abortions past 20 weeks. Certain U.S. states -- notably New York and Washington -- are especially supportive to woman seeking abortions, and are moving towards having even fewer restraints, even as most other states move in the opposite direction.

In the end, though, the least restrictive country is probably China, where abortion is completely legal (and often encouraged, to combat overpopulation) throughout pregnancy. This ad for "Korean-style" three-minute abortions , which would cause fits of apoplexy in my Southern hometown, speaks to the country's un-conflicted attitude towards the procedure. But given China's restrictions on having more than one child, it, too, can hardly be described as a bastion of reproductive freedom.