HUNGARY – Is legal abortion at risk from Orban’s “family first crusade”?

In February 2018, the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee (above) visited Hungary to observe the situation of women’s rights in the country. The delegation looked into the status of the Istanbul Convention, sexual and reproductive rights, women’s participation in political and economic life, work-life balance, and the situation of Roma women. They concluded: “We are highly concerned that women’s independent civic engagement is being deliberately undermined or even criminalised. It is also disturbing that academic freedom at the universities is being called into question….” They also observed that gender stereotypes are particularly strong and women are expected to adhere to traditional social roles. “The Hungarian government’s understanding of womanhood is confined to seeing it as motherhood”, the Head of Delegation noticed further. The delegation observed these developments to be part of a broader backlash against women’s rights in various member states.

Thus, such events were already happening. Yet when Hungary signed the Trump Consensus Declaration at the end of October 2020, it sent shock waves through the country. In Europe, only Poland and Belarus had also signed, all three countries with some of the worst indicators on women’s rights issues. Sponsoring of the declaration is only one of a number of actions, including constitutional changes, being imposed on the country right now by Orban, who often rules by decree, with the ruling Fidesz party and its official coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party.

The Minister for Family Affairs Katalin Novak was reported to say that no changes to the country’s abortion laws were in the pipeline. However, the state is funding a break in legally mandated procedures in selected hospitals by attaching a ‘no-abortion’ condition to its financial support. The government has for some years supported a “policy to spur procreation within predominantly middle-class families, with the motive of jumpstarting population growth,” Reka Safrany, who chairs the Hungarian’s Women’s Lobby, told BIRN. Orban’s government has introduced several obstacles to obtaining an abortion, including inserting language about ‘protecting the fetus from conception’ in the Constitution. Abortion is only legal in the case of grave damage to the fetus, when the woman’s health is at risk or when the pregnancy is the result of a crime. However, abortion can also be permitted if the woman has a precarious socio-economic situation, which helps many women.

However, as Noa Nogradi, a women’s rights expert and political philosopher is quoting as saying: “The message is clear: if you choose abortion, the state wants you to have it the hard way. Women are subject to mandatory waiting periods and two counselling sessions that are intended to change their minds. According to research by the PATENT Association, a reproductive rights advocacy group, these counselling sessions only seem to add to the women’s mental strain. “Of the more than 100 women we asked, not a single one came away from it dissuaded. But they all felt humiliated,” Nogradi said. It has become more difficult to book an appointment, and permits for abortions with pills have been revoked, leaving many women with surgery as their only option other than going abroad.

Last year, close to 26,000 pregnancies were terminated surgically in the country, half the number compared to 15 years ago, according to the Central Statistical Office. Yet the Minister of Human Resources famously blamed abortion for Hungary’s population decline, brushing off data that showed the country’s death rate was twice the number of abortions.

IVF is free in Hungary, but contraception is not. Conscientious objection to abortion from doctors, often incentivised by government funding, is also on the rise. However, Judit Zeller of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union thinks there is too much support for legal abortion, shown in a 2017 poll, even for this government to restrict it directly.

SOURCES: Balkan Insight, by Edward Szekeres, 19 November 2020 ; PHOTO, Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality of the European Parliament, 2018