EU Scream

Abortion Wars

July 21, 2019 EU Scream Season 1 Episode 27
EU Scream
Abortion Wars
Chapters
EU Scream
Abortion Wars
Jul 21, 2019 Season 1 Episode 27
EU Scream

Pressure on women to avoid terminating unwanted pregnancies has intensified in countries like Croatia, Poland and Romania. Michael Bird, an investigative journalist and writer in Bucharest, has been covering the situation for publications including EUobserver. He says constraints come from a variety of sources including churches, counsellors, public hospitals — even doctors. Elena Zacharenko at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network warns that arch-conservative forces seeking to narrow a woman’s right to choose got a boost in European elections in May. Ulrike Lunacek is a former vice president of the European Parliament who has first-hand experience of how anti-abortion activists stepped up their lobbying early this decade. She explains why pro-choice women and the LGBT community face a common enemy. “Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125” by Papalin is licensed under CC by 3.0. “Airside No. 9” is played by Lara Natale.

Support the show (https://euscream.com/donate/)

Show Notes Transcript

Pressure on women to avoid terminating unwanted pregnancies has intensified in countries like Croatia, Poland and Romania. Michael Bird, an investigative journalist and writer in Bucharest, has been covering the situation for publications including EUobserver. He says constraints come from a variety of sources including churches, counsellors, public hospitals — even doctors. Elena Zacharenko at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network warns that arch-conservative forces seeking to narrow a woman’s right to choose got a boost in European elections in May. Ulrike Lunacek is a former vice president of the European Parliament who has first-hand experience of how anti-abortion activists stepped up their lobbying early this decade. She explains why pro-choice women and the LGBT community face a common enemy. “Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125” by Papalin is licensed under CC by 3.0. “Airside No. 9” is played by Lara Natale.

Support the show (https://euscream.com/donate/)

Speaker 1:

The European Union has not treated us well . Stupid European elites jumping off the cliffs once again. Yes, you are the guilty people and you refuse to accept it.

James Kanter:

This is EU Scream the progressive politics podcast from Brussels, in association with EU Observer. I'm James a journalist who's crisscrossed Europe for 15 years now. In this episode: abortion rights under attack. Though the laws on abortion in the European Union vary widely, the procedure is permitted in most member states. Just one, Malta, still has a formal ban and yet the pressures on women to avoid terminating unwanted pregnancies have been growing in countries like Croatia, Poland, and Romania. We hear from Elena Zacharenko at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network. She warns that arch-conservative forces seeking to narrow a woman's right to choose, got a further boost in European elections in May. We also hear from Ulrike Lunacek a former Vice President of the European Parliament for the Greens. She witnessed anti abortion activists stepping up their lobbying tactics early this decade. She also explains why pro-choice women and the LGBT community face a common enemy. We start with Michael Bird , an investigative journalist and writer in the Romanian capital Bucharest. Bird is among reporters in the region who have been covering the situation in a series of articles for publications, including EU Observer . He explains the constraints on women seeking an abortion are coming from a variety of sources that include churches, counselors , public hospitals, and even doctors.

Michael Bird:

Hello James.

:

Oh, Hey Michael, can you hear me okay?

Michael Bird:

I can hear you.

:

Can you hear me?

Michael Bird:

Yeah, yeah, it's a good line.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

James Kanter:

What was the inspiration for this series?

Michael Bird:

Well, we're based in Romania and what I found recently was that a lot of women were being refused abortions. By public hospitals in Romania. This seemed to me crazy because Romania has a huge history of banning abortion under the communist dictator Ceausescu up to 10,000 women died due to botched abortions under Ceausescu. So I thought this was tragic what had happened and because of that, I wanted to look into it to see the extent to which hospitals and doctors in Romania were refusing abortions for women. And then we wanted to look in other neighboring countries in eastern Europe. In the case of Romania, you mentioned the natalist policies of Ceausescu. That was a disaster. Ceausescu wanted there to be more and more Romanian children and a sort of greater workforce , a bigger country. Initially there were more children born but then two things happened. There were a huge amount of abandoned children, which meant that the state had to set up lots of orphanages and the second thing that happened, backstreet abortions, and that led to up to 10,000 women dying over this period due to infection or due to bad strategies in terms of having the abortion and also it created a black market among gynaecologists or midwives who performed these.

James Kanter:

I guess under Ceausescu you couldn't even leave the country.

Michael Bird:

Exactly, under Ceausescu you could not leave Romania. So it was impossible for someone to engage in what's called abortion tourism.

:

So you ended up looking at Croatia and Poland as well?

Michael Bird:

Yes, I mean, we looked at Croatia because they are a very Catholic country and what we found there was that 60 percent of medical staff are refusing to give abortions, which is an increase of five percent on what was happening five years ago. So this is a growing number of medical professionals who are refusing abortion and in Poland , women can access it if they have fetal abnormalities or if it's the result of a rape or for the health of the woman. But despite this, what we found is that a vast majority of hospitals do not allow this procedure to happen there. Up to 90 percent of hospitals weren't providing this procedure.

:

Even in cases of rape or abnormalities?

Michael Bird:

Yeah, yeah. I mean women have to travel very far within Poland sometimes to get an abortion under those conditions.

:

What are the tactics that are being used by these sort of pro-lifers? Have they changed their tactics in recent years?

Michael Bird:

I think this is part of a process which has been going on for a long time. It's been going on for about 25 years, slowly and gradually, particularly in religious countries like Poland and Croatia. And up to a certain point, Romania . And what you see for example is you see something like the pro-life groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Between 2012 and 2017 they transferred $8.4 million to their European operations. You have Human Life International, which is a prolife group, which is based in Front Royal Virginia, which spent $1.5 million over the same period in Europe. So you see certainly investment coming in from America and also what you see, not just money is strategies. There's a system called 40 days for life. It's from Texas. What they do is they campaign outside hospitals with banners and placards with a pro-life message and they have an international network of different groups across the world who undertake this during lent for 40 days, they protest and pray; And this is happening in Croatia and Romania as well. And also there's 'the march for life', which started in 1974 in Washington DC in protest against the Roe vs Wade decision . That particular form of protest has now been exported across Europe and you see that in Poland, and in Croatia, and in Romania, very similar marches for life happening there.

:

It seems like what they're doing is going for hearts and minds?

Michael Bird:

The idea is that they're trying to change the law on abortion that would be ideal for them, but it's quite difficult. But what we see happening in all of these countries, particularly in Romania and Croatia, is we see doctors making a personal decision to invoke a conscience clause, not to perform abortions. And then once a lot of doctors refuse, then it becomes hospitals that refuse and once it becomes hospitals that refuse, it becomes whole hospitals within a region that refuse or within a county that refuse. In Romania, 30% of hospitals are now refusing abortions even though they should, human rights activists argue by law, have someone who provides the service on site .

:

Talk to me a little bit about this church, which is on the property, I think of a hospital in Romania and how that affected or that may have played into the way that doctors behave.

Michael Bird:

Well in Iasi, which is a large city in the northeast of Romania , there's a hospital called Alexandria Young Kooser Hospital and on the site and the grounds of the hospital is a church where they have big banners, pro-life banners, and they have little pieces of paper nailed to the church walls saying abortion is a sin and leaflets. So telling people pro choice kind of messages. The priest there told us that, you know, after they consistently lobbied and protested about the fact that abortions were happening in the hospital, this contributed to the doctors making a decision to no longer perform them. And the church and the hospital worked very closely together on, on social issues. I mean, in Timisoara, which is another city in the southwest of Romania, there were doctors w ho h ad been given diplomas by the church for their decision to refuse to perform abortions.

:

So these diplomas are sort of a badge of honor for a doctor to be, I d on't k now, recognized by the church for their medical work? It's a bit bizarre. I think, there's another issue here, which is an issue with hospitals. A lot of doctors are leaving hospitals in Romania and they're going to get jobs abroad. And so hospitals lack a lot of professionals. So they're really desperate, particularly in small towns to have any doctor who will work for them. So I think that doctors then feel that they're in quite an advantageous position then, so they can kind of choose up to a point what they do; And I think this has an effect as well. What I've found is that the attitude of some of the medical staff in these countries seems to be quite judgmental. There seems to be a lot of women who feel that they are stigmatized. So we're seeing if you like , a situation where what should be accessible to women is now being denied, not through legal measures, but through practice in hospitals.

Michael Bird:

And the fact is that a lot of these doctors in these hospitals don't see it as a service that they shouldn't provide. They didn't see a woman as a , as a patient who is in need of help, but as a client who is in need of a service and that distinction is quite a blow to women's reproductive rights.

:

Is there one thing that is among the most sort of striking things in the reporting that you and your team did ? Certainly talking to women. It's very difficult for them to speak about the subject. Because what tends to happen is that women undertake this procedure and then they want to forget about it. They don't want to go back there, don't want to revisit it because it becomes a very harrowing experience. And that's been the hardest thing for us is to encourage women to open up about this without making them feel like they have to talk to us.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

James Kanter:

Elena Zacharenko is a lead advocate at the European network of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, a nonprofit that champions sexual and reproductive health rights for all and especially the underserved. Her organization now labels antiabortion activists as reproductive bullies. That marks a break with the more consensual terminology of past decades and it serves to highlight the cruelty of forcing women through pregnancy by refusing abortion care. The term also is a response to the way that hard, right. Religious activists dismiss pro choice advocates as so-called gender theorists who want to subvert the traditional family.

Speaker 5:

Oh, hello? It's James Kanter for Elena.

Speaker 1:

Oh Okay. Come on in .

Speaker 5:

I first asked Zacharenko whether she expected the term reproductive bullies to stick.

Elena Z:

Yes. Yeah. We're hoping it catches on. Uh , but yes, indeed. Yeah. It was a conscious sort of effort to deliver the message. You know, it's, it's not the sort of pro-life versus pro-choice debates that was really imposed by these reproductive bullies in the past. And I think referring to them as reproductive bullies is , is really something that describes a lot more accurately what they are.

Speaker 5:

What are the hallmarks of the reproductive bully? What would be the profile?

Elena Z:

What's interesting now is the profile has widened in a way . So what's happening is a political mainstream taking on some of the arguments that were in the past reserved for this sort of ultra conservative or religious rights . And this in my opinion, is actually one of the most dangerous aspects of what we're seeing now. But it's actually also broader it is also opposition to LGBT rights. It's opposition to the introduction of sexual education in schools. It's opposition to same sex marriage, same sex adoption of children and so on. The term that they use is opposition to gender ideology or gender theory. And this is something that has very quickly passed from being some sort of niche concern to a very much global phenomenon where you see,the same rhetoric used by Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini , Donald Trump you see it used in Brazil by Jair Bolsonaro it's really a term and and a group that unites very diverse political actors and it allows them to share a certain platform and a certain agenda to promote their political program.

:

I love it. How the siren was going off when you were mentioning Trump, Salvini and I think Orban. Exactly. Yeah.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

Speaker 5:

Naive question in a way, deliberately naive, deliberately simplistic, but is abortion really just a kind of lifestyle choice as many of these legislators from the Italian Lega, from the Polish PIS, the Law and Justice Party, as many of them would have us believe, you know, a lifestyle choice that they describe as immoral and that merely serves to raise the number of terminations?

Elena Z:

Absolutely not. I mean, it's a healthcare service as any other healthcare service, a lifestyle choice. I mean this is something that sort of falsifies the image of abortion in Europe and in the world. It's primarily healthcare and it's definitely not a procedure that is restricted to a particular group of women who access it. So we certainly cannot speak of, for example, religious women being less likely to get an abortion in facts. There's research done by an organization called Catholics for Choice in the US that demonstrates that Catholic women, for example, have abortions as frequently as women who don't declare to belong to a religion or of any other religion, and the only thing that happens if you try to curtail access to the service is that you make it more difficult for the marginalized groups. You're basically raising the chances that women will have to resort to unsafe measures of abortion. You could almost think of it as a sort of regressive tax.

:

Absolutely. In fact, the research that IPPF has done on abortion access in Europe shows that one of the major barriers for women to access abortion, even in legislatures where they have relatively liberal provisions on this, is the cost of the procedure. Next, can we delve into the European elections that we've just had and some of the figures that are fascinating that you've been compiling? Yes, I first looked into the number of Members of European Parliament who declare themselves to be opponents of quote/unquote gender ideology in the previous term of the European Parliament and the number who are in this category was at around 15 percent and in this term this number has doubled it is at 30 percent. So the number was literally double from, from the past term, which is primarily accounted for by the rise in support to right wing and euroskeptic parties who very often have this issue on their agenda.

Elena Z:

So this was Salvini's Lega , Orban's Fidesz, the Polish Peace Party did very well. Marine Le Pen of course , with the Rasemblement Nationale they all maintained their seats or they increased significantly the number of seats they have. But of course there are very much more sort of centrist center right members of the European People's Party who oppose these issues, not necessarily vocally by speaking out against it, but by voting against certain provisions in European Parliament resolutions. And we see this very clearly in the voting trends from the previous term of the European Parliament. So we were able to track the MEPs who returned to the European Parliament in this term, how they voted in the previous term, and it really revealed that there's a significant proportion of the European People's Party that simply opposes any wording that includes references to abortion or reproductive health.

:

What does it effect if there are more of these kinds of legislators in Brussels and Strasbourg at the European Parliament?

Elena Z:

One is very concretely risks to legislation. One very big file on the gender equality agenda is the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. It actually covers all of the European countries, including Turkey and Turkey was the first country to ratify and the original signature was made in Istanbul. It is very much directed at preventing male violence against women. However, because this convention contains a reference to the word gender it has become this sort of flagship document to oppose by these opponents of gender ideology. We've seen, for example, Bulgaria and Slovakia rejecting the ratification of the Istanbul Convention and the processes also stalled at the EU level.

:

So let me get this straight. Something that Turkey has ratified is being resisted by Bulgaria and Slovakia? Yes, yes. Although Turkey is now also turning against the Istanbul Convention slowly because of the rise also in Turkey of these anti gender ideology sentiments. But, indeed it's a very absurd situation, for most legislators, even five or 10 years ago, this would not have been an issue whatsoever. The second concern that I have is what this tells us about the state of the EU . If EU voters are voting in support of parties that oppose gender equality , minority rights and so on, it is not necessarily that they oppose these things themselves specifically, but they are casting at the very least a protest vote. It demonstrates the fact that we need really, some sort of radical overhaul and democratisation of the EU because there are these fringe and frankly quite dangerous ideas that are gaining power. Maybe now is a good time to reflect on Simone Veil. The first President of the European Parliament, this parliament, which is now full of people who are rejecting the idea of taking further action to address sexual and reproductive health issues; The first president of this body was an absolutely pivotal figure in this fight. Well, Simone Veil was instrumental to liberalizing the abortion provisions in France, although of course this matter remains a question of state competence of the EU, which is part of the reasoning that opponents of reproductive health often give for why the EU should not have any positioning whatsoever on domestic matters concerning abortion.

Speaker 5:

Why is there a kind of a red line there? I mean, the EU deals with health issues all the time.

Elena Z:

Well, yes, then it's a question of your interpretation because it's meant to make sure that there are no inequalities in access to health care. Now denying a particular type of healthcare to a particular class of people who are women could be perceived as an inequality in access to healthcare right? But, it's not being interpreted that way. For example, even Malta's accession agreement with the EU specified on top of that, that the EU would never somehow impose its own rules on a termination of pregnancy in the country. So they took double precautions. They are exempt,

:

A legislative prophylactic. Of some type. So until Malta truly independently decides to change its policy on that it is very much stuck in that situation.

Speaker 5:

I know it's often unfair just to single out countries or systems, but if you were to name a handful of those that you have the greatest concerns about which countries would those be?

Elena Z:

Well then of course we are looking at first of all, Poland , Malta and until recently in Northern Ireland. But then countries where on paper the legislation is quite liberal. So for example, it's really Romania, Croatia are not immune from challenges as well, whereby, the biggest problem might be finding a doctor who will perform the procedure. So conscientious objection or you know, refusal of care and not indicating a doctor who might actually be willing to perform this procedure then becomes a huge problem. So maybe on paper you're able to access an abortion, but if you have to travel to the other end of the country to do so this is hugely problematic and it's a very serious issue, specifically in those three countries.

Speaker 5:

You also mentioned earlier the EPP and of course Ursula von der Leyen is coming from that side of the political house , in Europe. What is your thinking about whether she will push her own political group, the EPP, as a block, in a more helpful direction when it comes to protecting sexual and reproductive rights?

Elena Z:

I think we've seen some very promising commitments to implementing the Istanbul Convention and she actually went to step further and said that she wants to include violence against women as a crime, specifically in the EU treaties. She's also made some commitments to diminishing the gender pay gap, very much sticking to the EU competences in that sense . So if you want to move beyond that and make sure that the EU is better at actually arguing for and defending sexual reproductive health and rights, at the moment without changing the treaties , the best thing that we could see is vocal support for these issues and that is delegalizing or criminalizing abortion actually excludes groups that are already marginalized and vulnerable. So these are the types of statements that we would expect her to make to make sure that the message is actually delivered from the EU to the member states who then have the responsibility to change their policy.

Speaker 5:

You know what? I think that you're going to have to remind her of some of that.

:

Possibly, yes. When it comes to some of the people who've been elected to the European Parliament and some of the heads of state and government that we're going to be seeing over the coming years; you're going to have a busy time. Absolutely. Yeah.

Speaker 7:

Yeah. Watch this space.

James Kanter:

Ulrike Lunacek was a prominent member of the European Parliament with the Greens until two years ago when she stepped away from politics. I wanted to catch up with her for this episode because she has acute concerns about how the far right hand-in-hand with religious organizations has mobilized at the level of the EU institutions to undermine efforts to promote sexual and reproductive health. I first asked her about an incident in which plastic embryos were stuffed into mailboxes at the European Parliament, just as legislators were considering a resolution in favor of universal and safe access to abortion and contraception for women. That resolution was rejected. Lunacek spoke from her native Austria where she is passionate and engaged campaigner on LGBT issues.

Speaker 7:

Okay, well, maybe just to give you the background, this was in December, 2012 before Christmas. The plastic embryos that were given in the , like we call them pigeonholes, which is like the postboxes and I know that it was in the German and the Austrian ones. And this was done by an Austrian colleague at that time from the far right Freedom Party, FPO, his name is Ewald Stadler. He called for Political Catholicism to be very present in politics. And he gave all of us an envelope with a plastic e mbryo in it, one of those embryos that the anti-choice movements a nd demonstrators are using in front of abortion clinics in Austria and in many parts of Europe and worldwide to show people that this is an embryo and that's why people should, women shouldn't have abortions. So that was in all of our p igeonholes as I said, and it included a letter by him there he argues that, you know, this model and this baby model, he calls it baby although it's just an embryo. But he said that very often, this model then has people rethink and wanting to stop abortions being legal. And there he talks sort of more that you should have more, for example, anonymous birth services where women who do not want to have, the baby can leave the baby and leave. That's okay . This, this should, should they exist. But his argument behind this is that he talks about solidarity as an important factor in the European Union, but this solidarity also should go , um, to the unborn children.

:

The embryo is in an envelope with a letter? Yes. So maybe you can describe how you felt and how your colleagues felt when that happened. For me it was, my assistants brought it from those pigeonholes, from the post boxes and then showed it to me and it was more a mixture of laughing at it and saying, oh, come on, do you really want to abuse Christmas, which is important for many Christians, for that? Yeah. With the argument he's using. So it was more like, oh, come on. And many of my colleagues, not just from my party, from the Greens reacted like that. Even the Conservative Party people who in general are also the Christian Democratic Party, they also didn't like that. On the other hand, what we know is that these kinds of motivations that led to that behavior have close associations with things like even Islamophobia and rolling back the rights of women. And what we saw when perhaps those babies were put through the letterboxes is something like a hint of how powerful that narrative on the far right would become. Yes. That a European parliamentarian sends that to his colleagues really was something that we hadn't seen before. But I think, I mean these, these embryo models have been used by anti-choice activists for a long time. I remember when they started here in Austria, it was after abortion was taken out of the penal code.

Speaker 7:

It's in Austria. It's not officially, it's not legal, but it's not something that you are punished for. So this was the compromise done in 1975 so they have been using this embryo in all kinds of forms.

:

What unifies that? What brings together the kind of opposition that they have to the LGBTI agenda and to a woman's right to choose? I think one is for sure that they want the traditional role of women and men, gender roles for them are stuck in nature and that also a family is there to procreate. That is also why they're against same sex marriage is because they say it is totally different. It's not about equal rights and other , that is tool for the eastern European part that people think the EU is telling them that they have to respect lesbians and gays and they have to make Same-sex partnerships legal and that it's not like a human right and then that comes the issue with Trans rights that also they are saying the EU is telling us that we have to respect it , but there is only one way of being a woman and one way of being a man so Trans people can't exist legally. So that's where it combines with the empty EU sentiment. To what degree is this opposition to this phobia about gay marriage, about giving full rights to women to determine what to do with their bodies? To what degree is this now to do with the idea that if white women do not procreate, there will be a "great replacement" by people of a different skin color and a different religion. Namely Islam?

Elena Z:

Of course, especially since the many migrants and refugees coming in 2015, 2016, that has really been a turning point there as well. Those right-wing far right groups they are getting more Christian again o r Catholic or other Christian denominations, against Muslims. And it's also that, 'they have so many children a nd o urs women don't.' It's mostly men talking about women. There are some exceptions. There a re some women as well. In some things their criticism is similar to ours; like in freedom for women and then women's right to choose how you want to live but of course I wouldn't just call them p opulists. It's more than that. It's really formenting hatred. It's a racist, racist agenda. But it combines with what image of women do societies have. Suddenly t here a re so much defenders of women's rights. That's really, I mean, if it weren't so serious it would be funny. But that's where we have come to, that we are defending what we have fought for and what we have achieved in abortion legislation a nd access to safe and legal abortion and also in LGBTI rights. So by now it is, I think it's a fight, a struggle to keep what we have achieved and still to move ahead.

:

I mean, I don't think a lot of people out there really understand that LGBTI people are probably just as threatened in many ways by those who would argue against rights to abortion. No for sure not . Yeah . And, and for them it's also not so easy to get pregnant. [laughs] It doesn't happen at an overnight stand. So the lesbian women who get pregnant, they really want it.

Speaker 8:

[inaudible] .

James K:

That's EU Scream for this week. You can check our website at euscream.com for links to topics discussed in the show and for more episodes. Please rate us on iTunes, Tweet about us at @euscreams and like us on Facebook. EU scream is edited and mixed by me. James Kanter, Tom Brookes and I produce the show. Lara Natale plays our piano. Thanks for listening.

Speaker 8:

[inaudible] .