HUNGARY – Women consciously choose abortion and do not regret it, yet the system humiliates them

The liberation of women’s reproductive rights remains a meat-and-potatoes issue in Hungary. It is understandable, as it directly affects millions of citizens, and indeed the whole of society. It is no coincidence that the recent campaign of the Society of Opponents of Patriarchy (Patent Association) on the emergency contraceptive pill spread like wildfire on social media. The totally unfounded governmental silence in response, the introduction of the 2022 Heart Sounding Bill and the focus on women as a means to achieve demographic goals says a lot about the attitude of policy makers.

This time, the Association has conducted a stakeholder-focused study on the situation of access to abortion in Hungary, which concludes that nothing has improved in ten years (the last time the issue was researched). Their findings were published at a conference on Friday. They were looking at an aspect that has often been woefully overlooked: women’s actual experiences of abortion. What a woman in Hungary today experiences when she wants to take control of her body and decides to have an abortion. This is a question that the ruling power, which wants to control and maximise social reproduction, is clearly not interested in. But in many cases, it is barely mentioned even in face-to-face conversations between women, as the subject is surrounded by countless taboos, judgements, unsolicited opinions/advice and misinformation.

After presenting the research findings, the conference featured a presentation by Dr Christian Fiala, Medical Director of the Gynmed Abortion Clinic in Vienna, who spoke as a practitioner about abortion, common and harmful misconceptions surrounding the practice, and effective and empathetic medical communication. Dr Fiala runs an institution that many Hungarian women choose, so as to avoid the humiliation surrounding the procedure in Hungary.

Let’s talk about abortion!

In the first part of the conference, Fanni Dés and Krisztina Les, the association’s staff and research leaders, presented their findings, quoting many women who have experienced abortion. The research pair first outlined the process of abortion in Hungary. The process starts at the gynaecologist’s office, where the pregnancy is confirmed and the fetus’ vital signs are shown according to the “heartbeat decree”. This is followed by mandatory counselling at the Family Protection Service. The purpose of the consultations is to preserve the life of the fetus under the law. The counselling is carried out by a nurse, with everything that needs to be said in advance in order to preserve the fetus: what financial and social options are available, details of the possibility of adoption, a description of the fetus’ development. There is then a minimum of 3 days’ reflection before the second counselling session. The second consultation is more administrative and deals with the abortion itself. In most cases, a payment is required before the operation, usually a sum of 47,000 HUF (119 Euros/US$129), which can be settled by cheque. Once the payment is made, there is an 8-day period to go to hospital for a one-day surgical procedure to perform the abortion. The research collected women’s experiences at all stages of the process.

According to Dés and Les, the research, which combined quantitative and qualitative methodologies, involved about 100 women who had chosen abortion in the past ten years filling in a questionnaire. Nine respondents were also interviewed in a ‘semi-structured’ way. The survey is not representative, but the researchers say that the results are very much in line with those of several international organisations and studies. The majority of respondents were born between 1984 and 2004 and tended to be highly educated, living in Budapest or in a county town.

The overwhelming majority of respondents were motivated by inadequate living conditions (economic situation, too young age, inappropriate relationship) and/or violence against women (sexual violence or abusive relationship). It can be seen from the responses that sexual inequality between men and women leads to a high proportion of abortion decisions. It also shows that women make informed and well-founded decisions to have an abortion.

Turning to the legal framework, “outdated”, “bureaucratic”, “humiliating”, “inhumane” were the most common words used by respondents. 90% would change the rules. According to respondents, access to abortion in Hungary is currently fraught with obstacles and puts women in a vulnerable position.

“Women should not be oppressed either by compulsory talking or compulsory heart-lung testing. We need much, much more accessible information. We need a faster, shorter, more flexible and NOT bureaucratic procedure, because it takes a lot of time (weeks and working hours) and unnecessary travel back and forth in a process where time is of the essence. Regulation should not focus on “the enrichment of the Hungarian people, but on women’s physical and mental health, safety, education and prevention!” – one respondent said.

Most women felt lonely and abandoned during the process, without adequate emotional support from their partners or from their immediate or wider social environment. “I am alone. I’m alone at 18, neither my mother nor my boyfriend supported me,” one said.

This feeling of abandonment is reinforced by the lack of information. For most of them, the internet was their primary source of information, more specifically the websites of TASZ, PATENT, the Emma Association or a private hospital. According to the researchers, this proves not only the failure of the state system, but also that the women made a considered choice: contrary to myths, they did not go for abortion on the spur of the moment, but sought to research the procedure thoroughly. This is confirmed by the fact that, according to the questionnaire, the majority of women still stick to their decision years later.

The specific procedure starts with the gynaecologist. Women say – and this is a recurring theme – that a lot depends on luck in the current system. Some women have had an empathetic gynaecologist and others have not. But even the more sympathetic doctors often had a few interjections, unsolicited and personal comments.

“It was very bad when the gynaecologist – I was 24 – said, ‘Well, you’re not young any more.’ It stuck with me quite a bit.”

“I told him what the decision was going to be and then the most horrible question from the gynaecologist was (…) ‘You have a husband, don’t you? Or is it not from him?’ I don’t think you can say anything to that.”

According to the presenters, these are very destructive because the gynaecologist is where the weeks-long process begins, and the feelings that develop there accompany the women throughout.

Compulsory counselling is in itself a major obstacle for women: it takes a long time to get an appointment, while abortion is a race against time. “… In one of the districts they didn’t answer the phone no matter how many times I called. And then I started systematically calling all over the place, and then in the 11th district they picked up and gave me an appointment. But it was a marathon of phone calls. It was a real struggle.”

For many women, the counselling itself is a humiliating or absurd experience, with a range of unpleasantness reported, from the showing of plastic fetuses to an insensitive, demeaning tone of voice. Those who had become pregnant as a result of violence were treated somewhat better, for example, they were not questioned by the midwives about how it happened. But they also did not receive psychological counselling. Furthermore, here too, a lot depended on luck: among the responses, there were stories of female solidarity. Overall, however, most respondents experienced the mandatory counselling as a useless, administrative waste of time. Many would otherwise have welcomed a genuinely helpful, free counselling service.

The hospital experience was perhaps the most shocking for respondents: the considerable anxiety caused by the location and the unnecessarily painful procedure were mentioned in almost all responses. In Hungary, abortions are usually carried out in the maternity ward, and women waiting for abortions are surrounded by posters of fetuses, creating a sense of guilt. The presenters added that there is also a contradictory expectation for staff to be empathetic to women coming for abortions and women giving birth in the same space. So here too much depends on luck:

“I think I could have reported the doctor because of the things he said and the way he behaved (…) when he put the dilator in, it hurt terribly and I cried out (…) he said, ‘When they put something else in, it didn’t hurt, did it?’ So I actually wanted to run out of the hospital then, but I knew I couldn’t do it; I had to stay here to get through it.”

Dilatation in Hungary is done with laminaria (algae extract applied with a stick). Almost all women remember this as a painful procedure for which they were not prepared. There is a painless, blush-free solution, but it is not used here.

Overall, the women experienced their abortion as unnecessarily difficult, but also as necessary in hindsight. It is something that no one does as a “hobby”. And they were very happy to be over it.

“It’s a huge liberation. Even when I woke up from the anaesthetic and opened my eyes, I looked around and knew it was over, it was a huge relief. And in the days that followed. Maybe there was a little bit of anxiety in me, that oh dear, I don’t want where I was to come out in front of the family.”

At the end of the presentation, Dés and Les presented the following PATENT Association’s recommendations, which emerged from the research:

– Make abortion with pills accessible.

– The pre-operative procedure should be much shorter.

– Include what information all women should be given about the abortion process by midwives, gynaecologists and health workers, that many women need abortions, and that terminating an unwanted pregnancy is a part of women’s lives regardless of their social background.

– Dilatation should be carried out with a less painful, more progressive procedure than laminaria, i.e. prostaglandin tablets.

– Follow proper protocols on how to support a woman who has had an abortion.

– Information should be presented at the consultation and informational materials should be available at Family Services and gynaecology clinics.

– The consultation should be optional and limited to information on abortion only.

– Provide free psychological counselling if requested.

– Introduce abortion clinics in Hungary to replace hospital-based services.

– Professionals who come into contact with women who have had an abortion – midwives, gynaecologists, health workers – should be trained in how to recognise someone who is a victim of intimate partner violence or sexual violence, and how to support victims and refer them to other services. Women who require it should be given information about legal recourse.

SOURCE: Merce Hungary, by Ferenc Kőszeghy, 22 March 2024 + VISUAL ;shared by Patent Assoication, Hungary