Francis Whyte looks at the abortion laws in Europe.
incest or mortal danger for the mother finally went through in May I97K, three Italian cardinals, Papalardo and Colombo did not wait to see the impact of the new law before condemning it in November as inhumane, illogical and anti-historical. The following month, the Bishops Conference issued a letter condemning abortion as a serious moral crime and denied the State the right to legislate on such questions as birth. Any Christian involved in an abortion was liable to excommunication.
In France the bishops waited for the statistics concerning the first year or application of the law to intensify their criticism or it. The number of officially declared abortions had risen from 45.000 in 1975 to 140,000 in 1976. In spite of the government's figure of 134,173 abortions carried out in public and private hospitals. there was widespread belief that the real figure was closer to 250.000, if one included undeclared abortions and took into account the trend in other countries where abortion had been legalised. In 1975.350,000 clandestine abortions were thought to have taken place.
The bishops stressed how the medical councils set up to advise women wishing to undergo abortion were inefficient in disuading them, for only between one tenth and a quarter finally decided not to go through with it.
As the French law is due to be reconsidered in 1980, the French bishops issued a letter and a "white paper" onabortion in April this year. asserting that the moral conscience of the country had clearly regressed and calling for a real family policy. Their attitude will be the same as towards such problems as torture or unemployment.
But in contrast with the Italians, the French bishops have never mentioned the word "sin", even less that of "excommunication" in relation to abortion. For them abortion is a "grave fault" and excommunication is only efficient with people who are highly conscious of belonging to the Church (a very low percentage or French people are practising Catholics). Excom
munication would lose all its impact if it were used systematically and on a wide scale. in any ease.
Spain and Portugal: Judging by what happened in Italy. there will be much tension in Spain arid Portugal when the question of liberalising abortion comes up. for in both those countries the Church has much influence on public life and the Left is powerful, Already during last year's referendum campaign for the new constitution, the vice-president of the Bishops' Conference had interfered directly in the political sphere by calling on Catholics to vote "no". since the proposed constitution included, among other things, the legalisation of divorce. He did this in spite of the fact that the Episcopal Conference had been careful not to exert direct pressure.
Undoubtedly. the question of abortion will come up soon as the number of Spanish women undergoing abortion has drasticalls increased since • the death of Franco. Between 1976 and 1977 the number of Spanish women who sought abortion in
Britain rose from 6.023 to I 0.171. Abortion is not legal in Portugal either. hut the question
arose recently in Parliament in connection with the trial of a woman journalist who had written the script of a TV documentary shown in 1976 called "Abortion is not a crime". The Christian Democrats are defending the Church's traditional position against the Socialist and Communist MPs.
Belgium: One country which has not just come out of decades of fascist dictatorship, hut which still has not made abortion legal, k Belgium. In 1974 an estimated 175,000 to 200,000 Belgian women sought clandestine abortion, That same year the government published two plans for a new abortion law. one very restrictive, which was based on the same anthropology as "Humanae Vitae", which condemned contraception, and the other more liberal, less biological in its approach and putting emphasis on the woman's responsibility.
Still in 1974, a gynaecologist was tried for clandestine abortion and Fr de Locht, professor of moral questions at the University of Louvain, was deprived of his professorship as a result of pressure from Rome. He was director of the Education Centre for Family and Love. which had strongls criticised the traditional stand on abortion that the Belgian bishops made in 1973. Five years later, the law still has not changed and the bishops issued a letter in 1977 stressing the necessity to tackle the causes which lead to abortion.
One may conclude from this survey of the countries where the Catholic Church is predominant that the extent to which the Church's opposition to legalisation has been effective depends on the type of relations that exist between Church and State in each country. It depends on the degree of influence the hierarchical Church has on public life.
But undoubtedly the decisive factor is the political "rapport de force". Resistance to legal abortion was successful in Belgium because of the strength of the Christian Democrats. In mo,t other countries the Left is pm% r1 uI enough to overcome ecclesiastical advertistr. In Austria. for example. where there were nearly 200.000 clandestine abortions done in 1974, the Church, although very influential, could not prevent the socialist -go‘ernment from
abortion during the first three months of pregnancy.
But it is not true to assert that the Left is alone responsible for this new abortion legislation. In France. the new abortion law was considered as the first step towards an "advanced liberal type of society.