The XX Factor

Abortion Is Different in Europe Because Religion Is Different in Europe

Opposition to abortion and religion, 2gether 4ever

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The latest microtrend in anti-choice rhetoric is playing gotcha with the liberals by claiming that “even” the super-liberal socialist paradise of Europe has more restrictive abortion laws that we do. (Europe being treated like a single entity with a singular values system rather than a continent of diverse nations, of course.) Michael Gerson and Ross Douthat have both been whining recently that Europeans get to kick women around a lot more before they let them have an abortion, so why can’t America get a piece of the action?

Unfortunately, one pro-choicer, Emily Matchar, took the bait, writing for the Atlantic about how odd it is that “Europe,” which apparently includes Israel now, has more restrictive laws than the United States. The laws are often more paternalistic: Germany, France, and the Netherlands all have waiting periods to think it over, and many nations require you to offer a “reason” you’re getting an abortion, such as mental distress or poverty. There are often more restrictive time limits, too, with abortion only legal up to 12 or 14 weeks. (Never mind that American anti-choicers would never settle for capping abortion access at 12 or 14 weeks, as many nations in Europe do, but instead want to ban all abortion and severely restrict access to contraception.) Matchar has a novel theory as to why this might be:

Here’s one way of looking at the difference between abortion laws in Europe and those in the U.S.: in America, abortion laws are about morality, while in Europe, they reflect national ideas of what constitutes the common good. …

Paternalistic abortion laws are, perhaps, the flip side of generous government benefits: The government provides amply for the babies you do have, but in return it gets to quiz you about your reproductive choices.

A nice, neat theory that, in true centrist fashion, imagines there really must be some kind of trade-off of freedom for economic security, as conservatives like to warn. But if you understand that the debate about abortion is less about morality per se than it is about religion—specifically, how much Christianity and its deeply patriarchal history is woven into the legal fabric of a nation—then Matchar’s idea won’t fly. 

Americans technically have a stronger wall between church and state, but in practice, we have a huge contingent of religious fundamentalists who control much of the government and use it to impose their strict religious dogma as often as they can get away with it. Many European countries, including England, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, either have a formal state church or church that is nationally recognized as the dominant church, and yet in daily practice, far fewer people in these nations are really religious, much less fundamentalist. Religion is often seen simply as a cultural/historical expression of national or ethnic character, but not necessarily a guiding force in everyday life

Subsequently, while a lot of these nations have abortion laws that formally reflect Christian paternalism about reproduction and women’s roles, in practice, abortion is much easier to get than it is in the United States. You may have to provide a reason for your abortion in many nations, but it’s simply a formality, a box checked and not an obstacle. More importantly, the abortion providers aren’t being hounded out of existence and in many cases, the cost of the abortion is paid for by the state health care plan. Katha Pollitt recently elaborated in The Nation:

Here’s what’s really different about Western Europe: in France, you can get an abortion at any public hospital and it’s paid for by the government. In Germany, you can get one at a hospital or a doctor’s office, and health plans will pay for it for low-income women. In Sweden, abortion is free through eighteen weeks.

Abortion is also paid for by the NHS in England, even though it’s technically illegal if you don’t have mental or physical health reasons for getting one. Thing is, everyone who wants an abortion has a good reason for it, so this isn’t a substantive obstacle, though it is a nuisance. Waiting periods in all these nations are much less onerous, since your provider is right down the street and you can start the clock when you phone in for your appointment. (As opposed to here, where a woman might have to travel for hours to get to a clinic, only to have to either pay for a hotel room to wait out the waiting period, or drive home and then back yet again, missing work or child care.)

While overlooking the way that fealty to religion is skin-deep in Western Europe, Matchar’s inability to see the role religion plays in Eastern Europe is even more upsetting:

In Russia and other Eastern European countries with steeply declining populations, new abortion restrictions are explicitly aimed at boosting birth rates.

That may be the formal reason for why there’s a crackdown on abortion, but I suspect that the massive surge in hardline religious sentiment in Russia, egged on by the government, is probably the real reason. The crackdown on women’s rights cannot be separated from the rising tide of homophobia and violence against LGBT Russians, nor the outrageous sentencing of the members of Pussy Riot for what amounted to a harmless prank against the Russian Orthodox church. What’s happening in Russia is actually closer to what happened in the U.S., albeit on a much scarier level: Despite legally having freedom of religion, right-wing Christians have amassed a significant amount of cultural and political power that they’re now using to crack down on people they deem sexually deviant, from LGBT folks to women who have other goals besides being docile housewives who welcome every chance to have another baby. 

Trying to talk about the struggle over reproductive rights while ignoring religion is like trying to understand sports while ignoring the existence of teams: You might come up with all sorts of compelling thoughts on why the ball is being tossed around, but you’re no closer to understanding the goal of the game.