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Abortion: a disunited Europe
  1. Sam Rowlands
  1. Visiting Professor, School of Health and Social Care, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Sam Rowlands, School of Health and Social Care, Bournemouth University, R506 Royal London House, Christchurch Road, Bournemouth BH1 3LT, UK; srowlands{at}

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Access to safe abortion is a part of women's human rights.1 It has been clearly shown that access to legal abortion improves physical and mental health outcomes both for women and for children.2 Abortion laws are therefore an important subject for consideration and investigation in a comparative fashion. This article is the personal view of a clinician with an interest in, and commitment to, provision of humane abortion services.

While the countries of Europe are increasingly working together for socioeconomic advancement, abortion laws are a neglected area. Abortion remains constrained by lack of political will for change and by religious interference. Admittedly laws are not the whole story when it comes to access to abortion; as described elsewhere in this Journal issue, extra-legal factors are also important determinants of availability.3 Nevertheless the law is the overall framework under which induced abortion operates. Although arguably decriminalisation of abortion4 is an ultimate goal, this may take a long time to achieve. Moving to more progressive laws or addressing some of the unnecessary restrictions outlined in this article by minor amendments to laws would improve abortion care for many European women.

Conscientious objection and task-sharing with non-doctors are not included in this paper. Both these aspects of abortion have been comprehensively reviewed elsewhere.5 ,6

State intervention

It should be remembered that women and health professionals in Europe have suffered in relation to abortion even in the fairly recent past. Under the Vichy régime in France in 1943, Marie-Louise Giraud was beheaded for performing ‘back-street’ abortions.7 In the Republic of Ireland, the midwife Mamie Cadden was sentenced to death in 1956 (later commuted to life imprisonment) for performing an abortion on a woman who subsequently died of air embolism.8 In Belgium, liberalisation of abortion law in 1990 was …

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