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Bridget RyderNovember 08, 2021
Demonstrators confront law enforcement officers during a protest in Warsaw, Poland, Jan. 28, 2021, against the verdict restricting abortion rights. After a ban on aborting disabled children came into force, Poland's Catholic Church urged "all possible help" for pregnant women and single mothers. (CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)Demonstrators confront law enforcement officers during a protest in Warsaw, Poland, Jan. 28, 2021, against the verdict restricting abortion rights. (CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)

If the breach between Poland and the European Union widens to a “Polexit,” abortion will not be the only cause of the rupture, but it is a part of the bitter disagreements between Warsaw and Brussels that some fear could lead to another gap in the E.U. map. Poland, a predominantly Catholic nation adding new limitations to abortion access, has been heading in the opposite direction of other European states. Elsewhere in Europe, the stakes on abortion-related legislation have also ratcheted up.

European pro-lifers have not been complacent. A grassroots pro-life movement is emerging across the continent with elements that seem straight from the U.S. pro-life playbook.

Could a U.S.-style culture war be brewing in Europe?

Secular forces throughout Europe are “trying to substitute one culture for another,” said Ana del Pino, executive coordinator of the One of Us Federation, a think tank and European citizens’ initiative connecting pro-life and bioethics groups throughout Europe. She believes pro-life supporters in Europe and the United States are “all under the same attacks.”

Ireland ended a constitutional ban on abortion by referendum in May 2018. The postage-stamp countries of Gibraltar and San Marino followed suit this year.

Poland, a predominantly Catholic nation adding new limitations to abortion access, has been heading in the opposite direction of other European states.

In Spain, the lower chamber of Parliament passed a law that includes up to three years of jail time for impeding a women’s access to abortion. It is directed at people who attempt to interact with women entering facilities that offer abortions. The minister of equality, Irene Montero, also announced that her office is preparing legislation that will require physicians who refuse to participate in abortions to register as conscientious objectors to the procedure.

In Croatia, abortion on demand is legal up to the 10th week of pregnancy and paid for by the public health system. But like their counterparts in Spain, many Croatian doctors refuse to perform them on conscience grounds. The Social Democratic Party proposed legislation this year that would allow abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy and removes the right of physicians to refuse to perform them.

While the trend in Western Europe is to loosen restraints on abortion, in Eastern Europe, where Communist governments once made abortions easy to obtain, states are heading in the opposite direction. That has provoked a backlash from international critics. During the Soviet era, Poland maintained a liberal abortion regime, but laws passed in 1993 as a compromise at the end of Soviet rule permitted abortions only in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or severe fetal impairment.

The conservative, Euro-skeptic Law and Justice party won elections in Poland in 2015 and has been in power ever since. In October 2020, a Polish constitutional tribunal ruled abortion in cases of fetal impairment unconstitutional. In January, Law and Justice codified the ruling into law, essentially outlawing abortion in Poland since most abortions had been performed under the fetal impairment allowance. Both pro-life and pro-choice protestors in Poland have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the end of the Soviet era to support or protest the new restrictions.

Slovakia, too, is considering legislation that would restrict abortion on demand to the eighth week of pregnancy—it had previously been allowed on demand up to the 12th week. The proposed legislation also extends the mandatory waiting period from 48 to 96 hours. Thousands marched in favor of the proposed legislation in September.

One of the strongest pushbacks against efforts to pass new abortion restrictions has been in the European Parliament. In June, the Parliament adopted the so-called Matic Report. The report, “on the situation of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the European Union, in the frame of women’s health,” called abortion a human right and questioned the rights of physicians to refuse to perform the procedure for reasons of conscience, thus limiting women’s access to abortion. It was named for its chief supporter, Predrag Fred Matic, a Croatian European Parliament member who belongs to his country’s left-leaning Social Democrat party.

A grassroots pro-life movement is emerging across the continent with elements that seem straight from the U.S. pro-life playbook. Could a U.S.-style culture war be brewing in Europe?

And in September the E.U. Parliament passed a gender violence resolution that specifically deplored Poland’s abortion restrictions and called for the criminalization of “the denial of safe and legal abortion care.” The European Court of Human Rights has also accepted the cases of 12 Polish women against Poland’s more restrictive abortion legislation.

On Oct. 7, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal dropped a bombshell on the European Union, ruling that Polish laws supersede European treaties and decrying some Court of Justice of the European Union rulings as “progressive activism.” The European Counsel quickly fired back, letting Poland know it would not be receiving any of the pandemic recovery funds currently being doled out. An E.U. court intensified the conflict by ordering a 1 million euro daily fine on Poland.

Poland and the European Union have also clashed over changes to Poland’s appointment process for Supreme Court judges, as well as to mining and L.G.B.T.Q.-related laws. The conservative Hungarian government has also found itself at odds with Brussels for some of the same reasons.

While the E.U. and Central European states clash over rule of law and jurisdiction, a burgeoning pro-life movement has become more active than ever across the European community. “Even though its certain that pro-abortion groups have made advances and have the support of the media, which we saw with the Matic report, it is even more certain that movements in defense of life are ever more united, and the synergy is greater than in the past,” Ms. del Pino said. “Fortunately, we are conscious that the unity makes us stronger because it also gives us the possibility of influencing public opinion, since today the majority of media outlets silence us.”

The One of Us Federation began as a citizen’s initiative for the protection of human embryos in activities that receive E.U. funding. It gathered more than 1.3 million signatures during that campaign. Since then, its efforts have expanded to street-level activism, especially marches for life, which have become increasingly regular annual events in European cities, though typically they do not draw as many participants or as much media attention as their U.S. counterparts.

In September the E.U. Parliament passed a gender violence resolution that specifically deplored Poland’s abortion restrictions and called for the criminalization of “the denial of safe and legal abortion care.”

According to Ms. del Pino, there is collaboration between the U.S. and European pro-life movements, but it would be unwise for Europeans to copy and paste U.S. pro-life tactics. She notes in particular that the use of graphic images would likely prove counterproductive in Europe. Courts forced the removal of bus advertisements for a pro-life campaign in Greece because they featured images of a fetus in utero.

Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, who has been engaged with the pro-life movement internationally for decades, agrees that the European context is quite different from the United States. In Europe, abortion on demand had been legalized piecemeal through legislation and often only up to the 12th or 14th week, often accompanied by other restrictions like waiting periods. In some countries, abortion has only recently been decriminalized.

According to Mr. Meaney, abortion has not yet become the divisive political issue in Europe that it is in the United States. Europeans do not identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” so there is no corresponding identity politics, he said. In Europe abortion is generally treated as one issue among many that needs the attention of the church regarding the dignity of the human person.

Mr. Meaney and Ms. del Pino both cite the intellectual aspect of Europe’s pro-life movement as its strength. According to Mr. Meaney, there are pro-life intellectuals and politicians who are well-respected within the halls of the European politics and bureaucracy.

Ms. del Pino explains that the One of Us Federation hopes to inform political activism and leverage the European intellectual tradition in defense of a culture of life. It maintains a cultural platform where academics offer webinars and seminars and publish analysis, as well as a platform for popular political activism most visible in its marches for life.

“We have the activists,” she said, “and we have the think tank that helps us think about the anthropological and cultural foundation.”

Ms. del Pino and Mr. Meaney both believe that if the culture war heats up, the pro-life movement in Europe will continue to rise to the challenge. Wherever a pro-abortion political agenda comes to the fore, “we will be there to fight back,” Ms. del Pino said.

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