An unholy alliance: religion, neo-liberal economics and good old fashioned patriarchy – restricting women’s abortion rights in Eastern Europe

11/05/2012 § Leave a comment

A report from guest blogger Charlotte Gage on ‘How much does abortion cost?’ a session organised by ASTRA Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights at the AWID Forum in Istanbul.

I attended this session where speakers from Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia outlined the economic dimension of sexual and reproductive rights in their countries, and the increasing restrictions on access to abortion.

Provision of abortion and other reproductive health services are under threat from neo-liberal economics which is increasingly restricting state-funded services throughout the region. This is being fuelled, by ideological opposition to abortion from both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, sometimes with funding and support from US anti-choice organisations which is thought may include the US-based Human Life International and Opus Dei.

Most countries in the region have experienced reforms to health systems following democratic transition from Communism, but the results of these vary. The restrictive abortion laws in countries such as Romania and Albania under Communism were seen as a social experiment to increase the population and provide new generations of workers, and have since been relaxed. More recently however, Ukraine and Russia have tried to implement restrictive laws, to reverse a decline in population.

The influence of religion varies throughout the region. In Poland the Catholic Church still has a strong influence, and as its access to public resources increases, through provision of adoption services, it has a vested financial interest – as well as ideological one to opposing reproductive rights. In other countries it is the influence of, and funding from, the US anti-choice movement that is driving forward an anti-choice agenda.

The increasing reluctance by governments to pay for contraception and abortion services is also having an impact.

In Hungary, an advertising campaign in which images of fetuses asked not to be murdered was funded by PROGRESS EU funding – a fund aimed at supporting equality. The Government was forced to stop the campaign after feminist organisations complained to the European Parliament.

In tandem with ideological tactics aimed at creating attitudinal change, the budget for reproductive health in Hungary, which supported women who could not afford to pay for an abortion, has been significantly reduced with no explanation. Women seeking home birth are subject to unaffordable insurance premiums and in one case a midwife has been imprisoned for supporting a woman to give birth at home. For PATENT – People Opposing Patriarchy these were all cited as examples of the continued repression of women’s reproductive rights in Hungary, patriarchy in action, and the denial of women’s autonomy.

Freedom of Choice, Slovakia,  has campaigned against the lack of unbiased and accurate information on family planning. It also takes on the  influence of the Catholic Church hierarchy which is opposing progressive policies such as inclusion of more information in school textbooks and making contraception more affordable.

The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning described how in 1993 Poland became the first country in Eastern Europe radically to restrict abortion and is now, regrettably, serving as a model for other  Governments in the region. Official figures show just 600 abortions were performed in Poland in 2010 (compared to 8,000 in 1989), but this figure hides the large number of privately performed abortions and those provided to Polish women abroad.

In many of the countries it is the actual cost of abortion for women that creates the main barrier to accessing services. Women on low wages sometimes pay the equivalent to the average monthly wage for an abortion. In Slovakia, where there are no state controls on the maximum price of contraception, prices are rising and contraception is becoming unobtainable for many women. Moreover, across the region professional resistance to medical abortion combined with high costs means women are denied the option of choosing this extremely safe method of abortion.

An interesting response to the economic and ideological squeeze on abortion access came from a speaker from the Romanian organization European Centre for Public Initiatives (ECPI) which said that Romania has not yet fully learned the lessons from its past. Though the liberalisation of abortion in Romania has led to significant reductions in maternal mortality there have been recent attempts to restrict and limit abortion in Romania, including proposing mandatory (biased) counselling and a three day waiting period before a woman is able to have an abortion.

ECPI believes that calculating the financial benefits of providing reproductive health care may be a powerful tool in opposing further restrictions. To this end, it is attempting to estimate the full cost of unsafe abortion including:  the health care costs following unsafe procedures; social costs including sick leave and disability benefits if the woman is injured; the costs of childcare if the woman dies;  and violence against women services for those who experience violence following abortion.

It may ‘leave a bad taste in the mouth’ to try to put a monetary value on women’s lives, but in the face of ideological opposition to women’s reproductive autonomy, and governments’ focus on cutting budgets, it might be the most powerful argument we can make.

Charlotte Gage

With thanks to Katarzyna Pabijanek – ASTRA Network Coordinator

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