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An EU citizen denied an abortion in her own country can freely travel to a member state where it is legal. But experts say an EU-wide policy that legalizes abortion throughout the bloc infringes on national sovereignty.
Abortion issue divides Europeans along religious and cultural lines
EU leaders cinched a deal on the European reform treaty on Thursday, Oct. 18, but only after overcoming vocal Polish objections on voting rights. One reason behind such obstinacy was the fear that Poland in the future could be outvoted if the European Union ever decided to make abortion legal throughout the 27 nation bloc.
At present, each EU state has its own national laws, which vary considerably in detail with regard to the upper limit as to when a pregnancy can be terminated and under what circumstances an abortion can be permitted.
Supporters greet Dutch "abortion ship" entering Polish waters
Only three of the EU's 27 member states outlaw abortion: Poland, Ireland and Malta. In July, Portugal legalized abortion up until the 10th week of pregnancy, bringing the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country in line with most countries in the EU.
Poland was also the lone dissenter in the 46-member Council of Europe that did not sign a declaration against the death penalty as Warsaw wanted the document to include condemnations of abortion and euthanasia.
The EU's open borders and guaranteed freedom of movement, however, permit women living in countries with restrictive policies or outright bans to travel abroad to receive an abortion -- if they can afford the trip, according to Paul Bell, a spokesman for the International Planned Parenthood Federation in London.
"Individual state bans only make access to abortion difficult for the poor," Bell said. "If a woman cannot afford to travel or take time off work, she'll risk getting an illegal backstreet abortion at home."
Abortion became legal in Portugal this year
Between 1980 and 2005, there were 123,258 women who traveled from Ireland to England for abortions, according to the Safe and Legal Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland.
The figures on cross-border abortions tend to be greatly understated, since it is optional for Irish women to give out their addresses to abortion clinics in the UK and now with cheap flights to Spain, there are alternatives to England, Bell added.
EU-wide policy infringes on national sovereignty
While the IPCC has lobbied the European Parliament to make abortion a legal right across the European Union, some experts say an EU-wide policy would be undemocratic.
"The EU could never achieve a consensus when it comes to controversial policies such as abortion. Harmonizing such national laws only serves to antagonize the public towards the EU," said Maciej Golubiewski, a policy expert on EU matters at the Sobieski Institute, a conservative think tank in Warsaw.
No EU law can influence Irelands's ban on abortion
"National sovereignty is the cornerstone of democracy and our political leadership needs to be responsive to what people want," he said, adding that the existing Polish laws on abortion, which are highly restrictive by EU standards, has very broad support among mainstream political parties to both the right and left.
Hugo Brady, an EU justice expert at the London-based Centre for European Reform, who said he is generally in favor of European integration added that debates about abortion belong to national legislatures.
Golubiewski pointed out that Poland makes exceptions for therapeutic and non-elective abortions. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights awarded 25,000 Euros (US $35,691) in damages to Alicia Tysiac, who sued the Polish government for being denied an abortion in 2000. Tysiac, a 36-year-old, disabled single mother of three who lives on a state pension, sought an abortion because her last pregnancy exacerbated a condition that could make her go blind. Since Poland permits abortion for medical reasons, the Strasbourg court ruled that the country had violated its own laws.
IPPF had hailed the case as a victory for abortion rights in the EU, but Brady said the EU simply does not have the judicial powers to change national practices.
"In Europe, there is a reluctance to interfere in emotional debates anyway," he said.