What overturning Roe v Wade could mean for abortion in Europe

Experts in Europe fear that backsliding on abortion rights will go beyond US borders. Here’s why

By Tatev Hovhannisyan | 6 July 2022

(Photo: Miki Jourdan / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The overturning of Roe v Wade in the US will embolden fringe anti-abortion groups across Europe, activists and academics warned last week following a major equalities conference in Spain.

One told openDemocracy: “Now they will be able to crawl out of marginality and point to a major democracy having moved in their direction.”

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, was speaking to openDemocracy after the Seville conference ‘De-Democratisation, Gender+ and the Politics of Exclusion in Europe’.

His words were echoed by Imke Schmincke, assistant professor in gender studies at the Institute of Sociology in the German university LMU Munich.

The US Supreme Court’s decision “will give European conservative forces a major boost,” Schmincke said.

“It will intensify the polarisation around sexual and reproductive rights and gender equality,” she said, adding that groups from the extreme and religious Right were “fuelling culture wars also in Europe”.

European experts fear the US Christian Right will see the overturning of Roe v Wade as a “validation of engaging in lawfare” and will increase it in the near future.

US religious extremists have long been engaged in lawfare in Europe. openDemocracy’s investigations have shown that their key targets for funding include European courts.

The European offices of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have intervened in dozens of European court cases against sexual and reproductive rights. When Poland’s constitutional court voted to ban abortion in cases of foetal defects in October 2020, ACLJ submitted arguments in favour of the restrictions. ADF also intervened in Italy’s case against same-sex marriage.

Laws do not always guarantee access to safe abortion

Despite widespread condemnation of the US Supreme Court decision from many European leaders and UN experts, abortion is still a taboo in many European countries.

According to the latest European Abortion Policies Atlas, people in almost a third of European countries have problems accessing abortion care and some are even forced to continue pregnancies against their will.

The Atlas, the first in-depth analysis of abortion policies across Europe, scored 52 countries and territories according to their legal frameworks on access to safe abortion care. It marked 38 of them between ‘medium’ and ‘exceptionally poor’.

Although some states were making advances on reproductive freedom – such as San Marino, which in September 2021 voted to legalise abortion care in a groundbreaking referendum after a 20-year fight – other countries are constantly backsliding, such as Poland which has a near total abortion ban now.

The other extreme example in Europe is Malta, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances.

But experts say liberal abortion laws in other European countries do not guarantee access to safe abortion, either.

Veronique Sehier, former co-president of Planning Familial in France, told openDemocracy: “If access to services is not effective, if information is not developed, the most remote women do not have access to abortion – they can’t exercise their rights.

“If, on top of this, they come across health professionals who oppose their conscience clause, it becomes a real struggle for them.”

Opposition to abortion isn’t anything new in Europe. Recent research released by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights shows that, since 2009, more than $700m has been spent in Europe on ‘anti-gender’ activities against sexual and reproductive rights – with more than half (about $430m) coming from European sources, overshadowing $180m from Russia and $80m from the US.

openDemocracy’s last investigation showed that, since 2007, 30 US Christian right groups have spent at least $297m of ‘dark money’ outside the US, with more than $68m spent between 2016 and 2019. The largest proportion of this money was spent in Europe.

Between 2007 and 2019, US Christian Right organisations allocated more than $98m to spend in the continent, fuelling campaigns against women and LGBTIQ rights, sex education and abortion.

One of the biggest international spenders in the region ($23m) is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), led by the famous US evangelical preacher’s son, Franklin Graham. This organisation, formerly a non-profit, reclassified itself as a church in 2014, and has not had to disclose its foreign spending since then.

One of the most active groups in Europe is the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which spent on average $1.2m a year in Europe between 2007 and 2019.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) recorded its highest-ever spending in Europe in 2019 with $4,3m which nearly doubled from the previous year. The group also recorded spending in Eurasia for the first time in 2019.

Europe was the main destination of foreign spending disclosed by the Federalist Society ($2.4m), a secular and conservative legal group highly influential in US judiciary politics.

What’s next

“The overturning of Roe v Wade showed that it’s high time to think smartly about our mid- and long-term strategies, and not just fixing problems on a daily basis,” said Ruth Rubio-Marín, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sevilla and director of the UNIA UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Interculturalism.

Veronique Sehier from France’s Planning Familial said that – while Poland and Hungary may be next on the list – anti-gender movements are eyeing other European countries, too, deploying common methods and strategies.

“Vigilance is needed, as well as coordinated action by pro-choice movements and work with politicians to strengthen democracy and emancipatory laws.”

But it wasn’t all bad news. Datta called the US Supreme Court decision a “wake-up call pointing to how fragile European existing progressive abortion laws and related contested human rights are” and how they clearly needed “further legal protection”.

Professor Schmincke also sees a positive outcome of this. “The idea of bodily autonomy as a universal right for everyone will get anchored on more solid grounds,” she predicted.

World reacts to U.S. overturning Roe v. Wade

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Watch: What do European lawmakers think about abortion rights?

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