Opinion | No, abortion laws in Europe do not align with U.S. restrictions

Leah Hoctor is senior regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights and an expert on international and comparative European law on abortion.

Three months after the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion in the United States shocked people across Europe, Republican lawmakers have astonished Europeans again with claims that 47 of 50 European countries ban abortion after 15 weeks.

This is simply untrue — as is the claim, made by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and other lawmakers, that by introducing a 15-week federal ban on most abortions, the United States would move into line with Europe.

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Apart from the very few European nations that retain highly restrictive laws on abortion — Andorra, Lichtenstein, Malta, Monaco and Poland — no other European country “bans” abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Instead, almost all European countries allow abortion throughout pregnancy on a range of grounds, including where there are risks to a patient’s physical or mental health, and in situations involving severe or fatal fetal impairment.

Elective abortion is only one of the grounds on which abortion is legal in most of Europe, and time limits for this differ per country. When these time limits end, abortion almost always remains legal for a much longer period on other grounds, such as broadly framed socioeconomic or health grounds, or grounds of severe or fatal fetal impairment.

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In support of calls for a 15-week ban on abortion — with carve-outs merely for highly restrictive exceptions, extending only to situations of physical risk to a patient’s life and pregnancy resulting from rape or incest — U.S. lawmakers referred to six European countries in particular (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway and Spain) and falsely stated that such a ban in the United States would be similar to policies in these nations.

Although these countries set a first-trimester time frame for elective abortion, they all allow abortion thereafter on other grounds. For example, laws in Denmark and Norway allow abortion for social, economic or family reasons until fetal viability (the definition of which is not specified). German law allows abortion on grounds of serious risk to health throughout pregnancy, explicitly noting that this covers both physical and mental health.

Moreover, unlike in the United States, many of these countries include abortion under national health insurance policies, as do most other Northern and Western European countries, meaning that patients do not have to finance the costs of abortion care themselves.

Even more problematic is the underlying assertion that new bans and restrictions on access to abortion dovetail with a European approach to abortion. This is highly disingenuous.

The fact is that most European countries are moving to expand access to abortion, not limit it. In the majority of countries, European lawmakers have moved steadily forward for decades on the issue of access to abortion. They have removed bans, increased abortion’s legality and taken steps to ensure laws and policies on abortion are guided by public health evidence and clinical best practices.

In recent years, European countries from Iceland to Ireland, North Macedonia to Northern Ireland, have lifted abortion bans or repealed regulatory restrictions. In the past six months alone, six European countries — France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, San Marino and the Britain — have undertaken reforms to increase access or remove legal barriers to abortion.

In the three months since the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, lawmakers in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France and Sweden started discussing new efforts to advance legal protection for abortion care. And in July, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the Supreme Court’s action.

This trajectory is not limited to Europe. Colombia, New Zealand and South Korea are just three examples of countries in other parts of the world that have adopted major reforms to expand the legality of abortion in the past few years. In contrast, since the Supreme Court decision, many U.S. states have enacted some of the world’s most extreme prohibitions on abortion.

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Although abortion is legal in most of Europe, our region’s laws are not perfect. Barriers to access, such as procedural requirements and third-party authorization rules, remain in place in many countries, and there is substantial room for improvement across the board. Rollbacks have occurred in a small number of countries, such as Poland and Hungary. In the five nations with highly restrictive abortion legislation, people’s lives and health are threatened by these laws every day.

Yet in general, the trend is squarely in favor of broadened access to abortion and reduced restrictions. Seen in this light, the assertion that new restrictions in the United States will align with a European approach is not only false — it is unfathomable.