Abortion laws in Europe: A model for the US?

Across the bulk of Europe, abortion can fairly be regarded as a settled issue. Photo: Women on Waves

CHICAGO, July 11, 2013 — The crossing from Dublin to the Welsh port of Holyhead is sometimes quietly referred to as the Abortion Ferry. Ireland’s laws are so strict that a hospital let a woman die last year rather than give her life-saving treatment that might have harmed her fetus. Ireland is an outlier among European states on abortion rights, but a closer look at European laws might bring some valuable perspective to the U.S. debate.

In contrast to Ireland, abortion is available on demand almost everywhere in Europe during the first trimester. Each country varies in the details, but later term abortions are available only under exceptions related to the health of the mother or fetal abnormalities. These situations usually require some official medical review.


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Some countries like Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, and Belgium require counseling or a waiting period even in the first trimester. Like Ireland, a handful of countries either outlaw the practice or make it highly impractical, including Poland, Malta and Cyprus. Though abortion is broadly available and free, Western European countries have the lowest rates of abortion in the world.

Beyond Ireland and Poland, abortion rarely draws a much political interest. The more restrictive countries are beginning to liberalize their laws, but there is no meaningful political will to remove the modest abortion restrictions that exist in places like Germany and France. Across the bulk of Europe, abortion can fairly be regarded as a settled issue.

The consensus in Europe is more restrictive than abortion laws across much of the U.S. Technically, under the terms of the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence, no U.S. state may bar an abortion before the fetus reaches viability, roughly 24 weeks. In practice of course, states are cooking up numerous different ways to make abortion impractical or at least humiliating without overtly violating that standard. And although late term abortions are legal across much of the US, they are extremely rare. There are four doctors in the US who perform third-trimester abortions.

Just last week Ireland passed legislation, which may eventually let a woman receive an abortion if continuing the pregnancy threatens her life. A final vote is due this week. The Catholic Church remains staunchly opposed to even this very limited measure.


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As protestors gather to challenge Rick Perry’s efforts to shut down most Texas abortion clinics, a glance at Europe might offer some suggestions for the shape of a more or less final compromise on the question of abortion. And for those who take solace from “it could be worse” scenarios, Ireland plays its usual role. Though a small crack is appearing in Ireland’s iron laws, “Mary still boards the ferry.”

Summary of European abortion laws from the BBC (2007).

Abortion laws around the world.


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Chris Ladd

Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area.  He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. 

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