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Abortion rights in Europe are being questioned after Supreme Court overturns Roe

LONDON — Abortion rights opponents have long been stuck on the fringes of politics in much of Western Europe. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has many in the movement hoping that is about to change.

That abortion was thrust into the headlines and onto the agenda has been a big step forward, said Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, a co-director of March for Life U.K., an annual event in September in London.

“I feel that for a long time it’s been shut down in the U.K. — in any debate or discussion, it’s been very loaded,” she said. “The fact it’s become a talking point is a massive step forward. Whatever anyone’s views are on abortion, it’s not helpful if we can’t talk about it.”

Vaughan-Spruce said she had noticed more people were contacting March for Life U.K. since the end of Roe — including supporters, donors and women unsure about going forward with their pregnancies. March for Life U.K. said 5,000 people attended its London event in 2019

Overall, opponents of abortion rights are a small minority: The polling company YouGov found in June that 85% of British adults said yes to the question of whether women should have the right to an abortion, with just 5% saying no.

“I do think we’re moving a step towards making abortion unthinkable and illegal,” she said. “Since Roe v. Wade, we’ve a lot more people getting in touch saying, ‘What can I do?’”

The goals of groups like Vaughan-Spruce’s are modest compared to those of their American counterparts. Anti-abortion rights groups realize that banning abortion in the U.K. would be, at least in the short term, nearly impossible.

Some lawmakers in the ruling Conservative Party — including the devoutly Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Cabinet minister who is the former leader of the House of Commons — would support a move to lower the abortion limit from 24 weeks, but they are a small minority.

Ealing Council Vote To Approve A Buffer Zone Around Abortion Clinic
Anti-abortion protesters hold a vigil outside the Marie Stopes Clinic in London in April 2018. Jim Dyson / Getty Images file

In neighboring Ireland, support for abortion rights has been on the upswing. In 2018, voters overturned the country’s abortion ban by a two-thirds majority — a historic result in a strongly Catholic country that suggested a new trend toward more liberal reproductive health policies in Western Europe.

So abortion rights opponents in countries with entrenched abortion laws are cautious about the prospects for change — but independent researchers have no doubt about the significance of the moment.

“What’s happened with the decision in the United States is it’s emboldened all the anti-choice actors around the world, including in Europe,” said Neil Datta, the secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights, a network of European lawmakers who support reproductive rights across the continent.

“An additional impact in Europe is that they are able to crawl out of marginality,” he said. “Being anti-abortion in Europe was a fairly niche interest. It wasn’t in any way mainstream like it is in the United States.

“I would anticipate that they will try to replicate this in Europe,” Datta said. “They have already established the basis of an infrastructure to do this kind of legal advocacy in European courts. We have at least two U.S. groups who are very well-funded who since 2013 have opened up offices in Brussels, Geneva and Vienna and are hunting for cases to take to the national courts and the European Court of Human Rights. And I think this will really embolden them.”

Dr. Dermot Kearney, an Irish cardiologist working at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead in northeast England who is an abortion rights opponent and campaigner, said he has prevented dozens of abortions by providing women with hormonal treatments to reverse the effects of abortion pills.

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However, the General Medical Council, which oversees medical practitioners in the U.K., told him last year to stop supplying the treatments, which he offered for free, after a complaint from MSI Reproductive Choices, a charity that offers abortion services formerly known as Marie Stopes International, according to the Christian Legal Centre, which supported his case.

Kearney, a former president of the Catholic Medical Association in the U.K., challenged the ban at the High Court in London. But before the case was heard, the General Medical Council dropped its charges, and he was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Speaking from the hospital ward during a busy shift, Kearney echoed other abortion rights opponents in describing abortion as largely a fringe issue, but he said the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision was clear to him. 

“It’s not going to be an easy task for us to emulate what happened in the United States — but it shows that with patience, time, resilience and determination, by sticking to the truth of what we believe, that the message can get across to the general public and eventually have some political influence,” he said. 

“We’re a long way from that in this part of the world,” he added.

“The United States was always split 50-50, and it’s an issue that’s always been talked about, but in the U.K. it’s something people don’t talk about,” he said.

In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans opposed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, according to an NBC News poll in May, which was conducted after the court’s draft opinion leaked to the media.

The Roe decision also had an impact on European countries where abortion is banned: Malta and the tiny mountainous country of Andorra, sandwiched between Spain and France. Poland bans abortions in almost all circumstances.

Malta made headlines just as the Supreme Court was preparing its decision on Roe in June, when an American woman, Andrea Prudente, had a miscarriage while on vacation there. She was left fearing for her life and at serious risk of infection after she was denied an abortion because of the country’s strict and unbending law.

Eventually she was airlifted to Spain for treatment, just as an estimated hundreds of Maltese women travel abroad for abortion services every year.

Image: MALTA-US-ABORTION-RIGHTS
Jay Weeldreyer and his partner, Andrea Prudente, at Mater Dei Hospital in Malta in June. AFP via Getty Images

Campaigners calling for liberalization of Malta’s abortion law agree that the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision is significant.

“It will have a negative effect not only in the U.S. but also elsewhere. I think anti-abortion groups will be bolstered by this, thinking that ‘if the U.S. has done this, then so can we,’” said Liza Caruana-Finkel, a doctoral student researching abortion services who co-founded Voice for Choice, a coalition of groups campaigning for abortion rights in her native Malta.

“Obviously in Malta there is nothing to revert to, but there have been pushes to put the ban in the constitution, which would make it more difficult to change. So far that hasn’t happened,” she said.

After the Supreme Court decision, Jerzy Kwaśniewski, the head of the hugely influential right-wing Christian Polish think tank Ordo Iuris, which has been instrumental in calling for an end to legal abortion, wrote, “What is happening in the USA has a direct impact on the entire Western world.”

A criminal trial could lead to a three-year jail sentence for a Polish abortion rights activist, Justyna Wydrzyńska, in connection with abortion pills that were provided to a woman in an abusive relationship in 2020. Amnesty International said in a statement that the case “comes at a time when the threat to abortion rights has been brought into sharp focus by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

As for what happens next, marches and so-called vigils outside clinics that provide abortions are planned as usual — with organizers hoping for bigger turnouts, perhaps more media coverage and maybe more donations.

Money is already available. Datta’s most recent report into the funding of abortion rights opposition outlines how $707 million was given to a variety of groups calling for changes in abortion laws, among other things, from 2009 to 2018, including $81.3 million from the U.S.

Vaughan-Spruce said her group doesn’t receive any U.S. money, however, and she said it was a “myth” that U.S. donors fund British abortion rights opposition groups.

For real legislative change, the abortion rights opposition movement in Europe may have to follow the example of U.S. Christian conservatives by influencing and ultimately changing the makeup of countries’ judiciaries and political parties. 

“What’s happening [in the U.S.] is paying off the dividends of a 30-year-long strategy of the U.S. Christian right of placing the right people in the right places in the judiciary — not just in the Supreme Court, but all levels of the judicial benches,” Datta said.

CORRECTION (Aug. 7, 2022, 5:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. It was June 24, not last month.