Obligation for all states to prevent recourse to abortion

Publié le 5 Jul, 2017

During the European meeting “Preventing Abortion in Europe” , which took place in Brussels at the COMECE[1] last June 22nd”, Grégor Puppinck, Doctor of law and director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ- Strasbourg), reminded his audience it is the states’ duty to prevent abortion and help reduce the recourse to abortion.


To this day, estimations in countries which have statistical data count over 1 billion abortions. Every year, one third of European pregnancies are terminated through abortion, with 4.5 million abortions against 8.5 million births in the countries of the Council of Europe. Considering the scale of this phenomenon, its causes and consequences, particularly geographical, abortion is a major social issue of public health to which society must answer by developing a prevention policy.


It should first be pointed out that the first cause for abortion is not pregnancy, but the context in which a pregnancy occurs. A woman who aborts does so not because of the pregnancy -which is simply a triggering factor- but because of particular circumstances, and that same women, placed in a different context, would not necessarily abort. Abortion is therefore mostly the result of a set of circumstances, for which society is partly responsible.  


Indeed, 75% of women who have aborted report having done so pushed by social or economic constraints[2]. This statement questions the existence and efficiency of prevention policies concerning abortion, which should normally try to provide an adequate answer to its causes.


Preventing abortion, a commitment made by the States


Based on their general obligations to protect family, maternity and human lives, reducing the recourse to abortion is a judicial obligation for all states.


Concerning family protection, the States have taken an international commitment which guarantees the “right to get married and have a family” that implies “the possibility of procreating”. They are committed to granting “as large a protection and assistance as possible to families”, for as long as it in charge of the upbringing and education of the children it has”. It is therefore every State’s duty to provide assistance to women and couples who feel they are not capable of welcoming a child.


The States also committed to protecting maternity, before and after birth. Thus, for example, through the ratification to the international pact relative to economic, social and cultural laws, the States recognize that a “special protection  must be granted to mothers during a reasonable period of time before and after the child’s birth” [3].


More precisely, the States have committed to reducing the recourse to abortion. Thus, during the international conference on population and development in 1994, called the Cairo Conference[4], the government committed, I quote, to “reducing the recourse to abortion” and “taking appropriate measures to help women avoid abortion”. The Council of Europe also invited the European States “to promote a more pro-family attitude in public information campaigns and provide counselling and practical support to help women who ask for an abortion because of family or financial pressure.” (PACE, 2088)


An abortion prevention policy must answer the social and economic causes through which a pregnancy ends up being called “unwanted”: affective immaturity, family fragility, economic insecurity, narrowness of the accommodation, professional difficulties and constraints, etc. The various “social rights” that the States committed to guaranteeing should provide an answer to most of these issues. Thus, amongst other things, the European social Chart and the international Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantee the right to an accommodation, family protection, maternity protection, the protection of life before birth but also the reconciliation of family life with the professional one., etc.


Abortion is not a fatality; many countries have managed to reduce the recourse to abortion through prevention policies.


In Italy for example, the number of abortions dropped by 56% between 1982 and 2013, going down to 102 000, i.e., half less than in France for a nearly equivalent number of people. Its abortion and contraception rates are among the lowest in Europe. In the United States, the rate of teenage pregnancies was reduced by half between 1990 and 2010 thanks to a campaign aiming at making people more responsible and valuing sexuality and human lives. The number of student who declare to be abstinent has doubled, increasing from 33% to 66%, causing a reduction by two thirds of abortion in the youth, a setback of sexually transmittable diseases and an improvement of their affective and psychological balance.


Many concrete measures of prevention thus deserve to be developed, particularly ones aiming at better educating the youth, helping women and making fathers more responsible. Sexual education and contraception have long been presented as the best way to prevent abortion. However, the number of abortions has not decreased, particularly in the underage population. Besides, the aim of contraception has never been the reduction of abortion but the reduction of women’s fertility and of demographic growth.


In countries such as the UK, Belgium or France, where the recourse to contraception has most been generalised, the number of abortions has not decreased because women have recourse to abortion more often when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy. While four unwanted pregnancies out of ten (41%) ended with an abortion in 1975, it is now the case for 6 pregnancies out of ten (62%). This is the result of what one would call “contraceptive mentalities”. In this regard, it is striking that 72% of women who abort in France use contraception, according to the General Inspectorate of Social Affairs.


The right no to abort


It is therefore urgent we come up with a true way to prevent abortion, to reduce it, particularly in the youth, so that women are no longer obliged to do so because of their social or economic situation. This prevention policy needs to be renewed in its very foundations and be extended: as all true prevention, it must be founded on the progress of personal responsibility.


Prevention first requires better sexual and affective education, but also physiological education, which provides true information on the woman’s cycle and the child’s development, on the relational dimension of sexuality, as well as on the concrete reality of abortion and its consequences. Such education would help the youth, women and couples to act in a more responsible and humane way.


Before even mentioning the obligation to prevent and reduce the recourse to abortion, there exists for all women a “right not to abort”, which must be guaranteed through the prevention not only of irresponsible sexual behaviour and the “unwanted pregnancies” that it leads to but also of abortion when the woman is already pregnant. This policy implies not only adequate education but also a determined fight against forced and constrained abortions. If education can considerably help with prevention when pregnancies or abortions are the result of immaturity, ignorance or irresponsibility, there are however causes against which education remains powerless: when a woman is constrained or forced to abort. Obviously, forced abortion is banned by law in most European countries; forced abortion has even been qualified as a crime against humanity since the Nuremberg trials. But what about constrained abortion? The difference between force and constraint is minimal. It is simply a difference of degree. However, the decision to abort quite often results from a constraint which can take on various forms: there are social and medical constraints and pressures, the pressure and irresponsibility of the father, the pressure exerted by the family, in particular on underage girls. There is also the pressure of the employer and all the material pressure (unemployment, accommodation, finances). These constraints are exerted directly on the freedom of women and couples; they are an impediment to the “fundamental rights” of women, recognized at the Beijing conference, “to control their own sexuality, including their health in terms of sexuality and procreation, without any constraints, discriminations or violence, and to take free and responsible choices in the matter” [5]. Likewise, these constraints go against the invitation made to the States by the parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe “to respect women’s freedom of choice and offer them conditions for a free and informed choice, without promoting abortion” [6].



Social rights of women at the heart of abortion prevention


It is possible to rely on international human rights law and on social rights to build a more ambitious prevention policy on abortion. Indeed, every time a women or a couple aborts for a social or economic reason, a social and fundamental right is being violated. More, it is a form of violence. Society must do more than simply propose abortion as an answer to the difficulties of women and families.


To affirm as an official truth that abortion is an individual freedom is an ideological deception which puts aside the question of its true causes and finally leads to blaming the woman, since the violence is seen as the result of her will alone, her freedom alone. If abortion is nothing more than a freedom, an individual choice, then the woman is indeed fully responsible for her action. This means leaving her alone to face the violence: both guilty and victim, in an inextricable psychological situation, while actually this violence is, in its structure, mostly generated by society. It is not surprising abortion causes so many psychological disorders, depressions and suicidal thoughts, particularly in the youth.


It is therefore first up to society to prevent abortion, as the states formally committed to, particularly during the Cairo conference. Some states managed to achieve their objective, and we should take example on them. The object of this seminar is to study together the terms of such abortion prevention policies in Europe so they may serve as an inspiration to national policies.


[1] The Commission of the Episcopates of the European Community.

[2] According to the Guttmacher Institute, < http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html >.

[3] International pact relative to economic, social and cultural rights, article 10.2

[4] The Cairo conference was an international Conference on population and international development in Cairo (Egypt), 5th-13th September 1994.

[5]  United Nations, Report of the fourth world conference on women, 4th-15th September 1995.

[6] PACE, Resolution 1607 of 2008, §§ 7.3 and 7.8

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