Slovakia’s Latest Regressive Abortion Bill Rejected: How Can Regressive Measures Against Women’s Reproductive Rights Be Countered?

On 5th December, the proposed regressive abortion law in Slovakia was rejected following a Parliamentary vote. The draft legislation required women seeking abortion care to undergo a mandatory ultrasound scanning, to view and obtain the embryo or foetus’ ultrasound image, and where technically possible, to listen to its heartbeat. Furthermore, it sought to prohibit abortion advertising as well as imposing a fine of up to 66,400 EU on those who order or disseminate it. Proposed by a centre-right party in the ruling coalition, it was the latest step in a campaign to tighten restrictions on abortion in Slovakia, in wake of the September protests that demanded a total ban. Though rejected, the mere possibility of this legislation being approved depicts tangible hazards on women’s reproductive rights. Beyond its local implications, it consequently contributes to the recent erosion of these rights worldwide.

The draft law earned widespread renunciation across the spectrum—from medical institutes to NGOs—as a violation of women’s fundamental human rights to privacy, autonomy, and the ability to make medical decisions free from coercion. Marge Brever from International Campaign For Women’s Right to Safe Abortion stated, “[The bill] proposed restrictions that were not medically justified or with any health-related value, and would have made abortion care punitive and degrading.” In response to the draft law, Amnesty International and numerous human and women’s rights NGOs have submitted a joint open letter on 18th November, calling on the Slovak Parliament to reject the regressive proposal and to refrain from further attempts to restrict reproductive rights in Slovakia.

Amnesty International celebrated the rejection as a “huge triumph for women and activists who spoke out and mobilized in Slovakia and internationally.” The legislation’s approval would have sent a distressing precedent to other pro-life countries, especially when no other EU member state imposes such requirements on women.

The close prospect of such legislation being approved sends a disconcerting message to women of the dangerous role politics can play when it comes to their access to healthcare. A narrow defeat losing by only four votes, the proposal itself validates the “extent and nature of the backlash to the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in some parts of Europe”, as European Human Rights Organization stated on Tuesday. Although Slovakia has relatively-liberal laws compared to other countries like Poland, this bill has been part of a string of attempts to roll back on abortion rights, being the sixth regressive legislative proposal seeking to restrict access to abortion care. Only last month, Slovakia’s parliament rejected four similar proposals that would’ve either banned abortion outright or restricted access beyond six-eight weeks of pregnancy. Disconcertingly, the spotlight on women’s reproductive rights is predicted to spill over onto 2020’s Parliamentary agenda. It is “deeply troubling” especially as countries across the world are also seeing an erosion of longstanding commitments to gender equality and the universality of women’s rights.

According to EHRO’s report, these regressive threats persist due to many factors. Several EU member states have failed to enforce sufficient measures and adopt adequate regulatory frameworks that ensure safe/legal abortion services. Despite implementations of sexual education programs, many of these still fall short of the World Health Organization and human rights-comprehensive requirements. Deficits in availability and discriminatory policy barriers impede women’s access to effective contraception. In terms of advocacy, courts have also been confronted with legal challenges threatening women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, which in turn have also compromised the work of human rights defenders and health care providers.

At any rate, is activism an adequate counterforce against the regressive erosion of women’s reproductive rights? Jurisdictions around the world are going through extreme lengths to restrict abortion access, which strips women, girls, and other people who can get pregnant, of their human rights and bodily autonomy, as Women’s March Global states.  While protests and activism have led to successful abortion-law reforms, the legal setup of today’s world proves a challenge. Unfortunately, as Michelle Alexander from the New York Times said, women’s lives are in the hands of law enforcement and medical decisions are entangled with bureaucracies and regulations. Advocacy and story-telling have got us far, but the fact that it is the lawmakers and the MPs’ decisions that can actually change these laws for better or for worse is an impediment that must be addressed.

While protesting and widespread international pressure may help save the day as it has in Slovakia a few days ago, we must be prepared for scenarios where it works otherwise. After all, it was the widely-reported pro-life march in September that incited this draft law. We need to change the knowledge that leads to anti-abortion bills being proposed in the first place. We must dispel the lies of anti-abortion, making sure that the lawmakers drafting reproductive legislations have gone through comprehensive sex education, and that voters are informed against inaccurate rhetoric to steer society as a whole away from the biased discourse.

How can society curb the damage made by discourse that undermines women’s health and reproductive rights? Furthermore, how can the government, in turn, move towards a role that is more conducive to the protection and enforcement of these rights? There is a lot of work to be done towards destigmatizing abortion and reforming the bureaucratic structure it has been forced into. After all, the authors of Slovakia’s latest bill hoped for it to have “positive impacts on marriage, parenthood and family,” with the justification that “society does not consider the induced termination of pregnancy a good solution.” Firstly, the debate should go beyond whether the pregnancy endangers the person’s life. It must be acknowledged that no one gets pregnant alone and most pregnancies are as much the responsibility of the person with sperm as the person with the egg. At the least, legislations must stop condemning the female with all the responsibility as if there was no one else involved. We must combat the anti-abortion lies that lead to anti-abortion proposals. Educating people on what abortion is truly about versus what abortion has been framed to be about is the key to dispelling this politicized medical and human rights scenario.

Governments and lawmakers must move away from oppressive rules, and instead ensure that through their work, they are creating social and political conditions in which bodily autonomy can be practiced free of stigma, coercion, and punishment. They must reaffirm their commitment to women’s human rights and repeal retrogressive measures that compromise them. Information on sexual/reproductive health and rights must not be censored, misrepresented, or prohibited. Rhetoric and discourse that undermines women’s rights must be reformed to align with human rights principles. While well-funded organized interest groups and powerful religious institutions may continue pressuring governments and other powers to limit reproductive rights, comprehensive sexual education both for the public and authorities will help curb the damage. Moreover, the existence of laws blocking access to abortion such as mandated clinic closures, funding cuts, biased counselling, the requirement for minors to receive parental consent—must not be ignored. Dismantling the financial, social and bureaucratic barriers to health care access is just as crucial. To move forward, governments and society must commit to effective action plans.

For far too long, women’s health, reproductive rights, and bodily autonomy have been turned into nothing more than political football. We must reform the systems that use criminal law to compromise, control, or impede on people’s sexuality, sexual health, and reproductive rights. Abortion is anything but straightforward – it is so much more than the question of wanted or unwanted, consensual or nonconsensual. Moreover, anti-abortion ideology must consider the pervasion of blurry boundaries – coercion, violence, violation of agreements – even wanted pregnancies going terribly wrong. Society must shift their lens to focus on the pregnant mother, who has long been pushed and hidden behind the curtain in favour of the “unborn” child. We must collectively call out the hypocrisy of pro-lifers who are so concerned about so-called life, yet have none for the person after they are born. Their concern must also take into consideration the mother’s life. We need a drastic moral revolution and a dire movement for social awareness. Women need to know, and we must let women know, that they are more than just baby-making machines and that their bodily autonomy is as crystal-clear as their and everyone else’s right to life. Social discourse must frame abortion for what it really is: reproductive freedom, bodily autonomy free of coercion, and a non-negotiable human right.