Abortion in Hungary: Pretence of Accessibility

Johannes Vermeer: Woman Holding a Balance , c. 1664 // Public domain

On paper, Hungarian abortion policies are much like those of most EU countries: women can terminate their pregnancy on request up until the 12th week and can do so through state-funded institutions. Yet, in reality, the accessibility of abortion in Hungary is only a façade. The government has been outspokenly pro-life for years and most recently, with the introduction of the ‘fetal heartbeat law’ in September of 2022, the country seems to be joining the trend of tightening abortion policies across the Central-Eastern European region.

The following article will not only assess the current abortion policies in place in Hungary, but also examine the realities of the process and point out the many barriers women face when trying to terminate their pregnancy. The policies will furthermore be put into the context of the national family planning strategy, the status of women’s rights in Hungary and the abortion laws across the European Union.

The current abortion policies (introduced in 1992) allow the termination of a pregnancy up until the 12th week under the following circumstances:

  • If the woman’s health is in danger
  • If the pregnancy is the result of rape
  • If the fetus has a serious health impairment (mental or physical)
  • If the woman is in a ‘grave crisis situation’

The deadline can be extended until the 18th week if the woman is under guardianship or if the woman was previously not aware of her pregnancy because of a medical condition or due to an institution’s mistake. The pregnancy can be terminated at any time if it puts the woman’s life in danger or if the fetus is lethally affected.

The ‘grave crisis situation’ was given the official definition of “causing bodily or mental impairment or a socially intolerable situation” in 2000, but can virtually be used by anyone who would like to terminate their pregnancy before the 12th week, as no proof is needed to verify the crisis. Stating that they are choosing to have an abortion because they are in a ‘grave crisis situation’ is enough to set the processes of terminating a pregnancy into motion for women.

The process of getting an abortion begins with contacting the Family Protection Service, after which the patient will have to go to a gynecologist to verify the pregnancy and that she is within the allowed time limit. According to a new law – on which I will elaborate below – during this ultrasound procedure, the doctor is obliged to show the fetal heartbeat to the pregnant woman.

After the visit to the gynecologist, two obligatory consultation appointments must be attended, with a minimum of a 3-day waiting period between them. Then the institution (state hospitals or private clinics) that will carry out the surgery is chosen. Only after all of this can someone get an appointment for the actual abortion procedure. Medical abortion is outlawed in Hungary; therefore, surgical procedures remain the only option.

On paper, these abortion policies seem to conform to the EU average. This is not necessarily because Hungary’s official abortion laws are so lenient, but because the majority of EU countries do not strongly promote abortion accessibility. Although only Malta and Poland have extremely restrictive abortion laws (with Malta outright prohibiting any form of it), only 5 out of the 27 member states allow abortions on request beyond the 12th week.

The majority of them (with the exceptions of Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Bulgaria) include the conscience clause in their policies, which allows doctors to turn away women if they wish to do so. Excluding Sweden and Finland, every one of the EU members have at least one restriction beyond time limits and approval from medical personnel – such as obligatory waiting periods, consultation or parental approval required. Furthermore, only 13 EU countries have state-funded abortion available for their citizens.[1]

Still, in theory, the state’s abortion law seems to meet the EU average of tolerating, but not outright supporting abortion and the process seems straightforward enough. In reality, women face many barriers that often make it almost impossible to obtain an abortion.

Firstly, they are at the mercy of time and bureaucracy: the compulsory consultation appointments and the waiting period all take up precious time that might cause the 12th-week deadline to be surpassed and therefore the access to abortion to be denied. The process is furthermore meticulously bureaucratic – it is often hard and time-consuming to obtain appointments for consultation sessions.

Due to a recent amendment to the abortion law, doctors are now also required to record in writing that they have shown the indicators of the fetus’ vital functions to the pregnant woman in a clearly identifiable way – meaning: the pregnant woman has to be confronted with the heartbeat of the fetus. Not only does this add an additional bureaucratic step to the already complicated process, but it also aims to emotionally manipulate women.

The fetal heartbeat law subjects them to even more emotional strain while they are in a situation that is already strenuous and potentially traumatizing. The new policy is also highly demeaning since it presupposes the inability of women to make the right choice as it tries to convince them to decide against abortion, at a point when the woman in question has already decided to terminate her pregnancy.

This further shows that women seeking abortion are also at the mercy of others (medical institutions, doctors, parents) throughout the process. In order to obtain an abortion, approval from a medical professional is needed. In the case of minors, the parents need to agree to the termination of the pregnancy. Due to the conscience clause – which, as I have stated above, permits medical practitioners to legally refuse to carry out abortions on moral, ethical or religious grounds – doctors can simply turn away patients without giving an explanation, resulting in many institutions across the country not offering abortions.

The consultation sessions actively discourage abortions, and the counsellors are legally obliged to talk about the alternatives, such as adoption and potential supports available for families. While trying to terminate their pregnancy, women are placed into an inequal power structure where they virtually have no authority and are continuously emotionally manipulated and humiliated throughout the process.

Additionally, they are also at the mercy of their financial circumstances. Abortions on request are only available through self-financing, with state institutions charging 41.667 Forints (as of January 2022) and private clinics charging as high as 350 000 Forints.[2] Although there is state funding for marginalized groups, it only covers 30% – 50% of the costs.

Termination of a pregnancy is only fully covered by medical insurance in specific circumstances: if it is carried out due to health reasons, if the pregnancy is the result of rape, if the patient is a minor, if the patient lives in a social institution or if she receives financial support for a mental disability. Medical abortion being illegal only magnifies the problem, as the use of the abortion pill is not only cheaper but is thought to put less emotional and physical strain on women.

In summary: on paper, the right to abortion is guaranteed. In reality, the system in place does not ensure the protection of the women within it but instead leaves them at the mercy of outside factors.

The current state and implementation of these policies can only be understood and explained by examining the government narratives. The National Strategy of Family Planning of the current government is strongly pro-life. This fact is so embedded in the political system, that the Hungarian constitution itself explicitly records that “the life of a fetus must be protected from its conception.”

It builds entirely on the traditional family structure (meaning that according to them family consists of a mother, a father and their children), upholds conservative Catholic values and strongly rejects a more progressive view of the family, which would include parents of the same gender. In the centre of it all stands the mother – not the woman! – whose sole responsibility is to bear as many children as possible. This view is reinforced by governmental support that increases with the number of children and special financial support schemes available for families.

Additionally, with the Hungarian demographic in steep decline, the government sees the increase of the birth rate as the only solution. According to the government’s official stance, immigration does not solve the problem and they support a strongly anti-immigration policy in general – this was highlighted most recently in Viktor Orbán’s speech in July 2022, when he argued that Europeans should not “become people of mixed race” as that would mean the death of nations. The pro-life policies and inaccessible abortion are therefore logical conclusions of the government’s politics and family planning strategy.

However, although an ideologically ‘logical’ conclusion, the idea of limiting access to abortion to drive down their rates is a faulty one. Abortion rates will not decrease when abortion is limited – only the number of safe abortions will. The solution to the problem would be ensuring that abortion is not needed. This would mean that contraception is easily accessible, that proper sexual education is provided to every citizen and that the living conditions are stable enough that one can afford to raise a child in stability – none of which are the case in Hungary.

Although all modern contraceptives are available in the country, no financial support is available for them. More importantly, emergency contraception (the morning-after pill) can only be obtained with a receipt from a doctor. And with the current economic crises and the conflict with the EU, ideal living conditions do not seem to be in our near future either.

Additionally, the family planning strategy does not seem to be working in the long run: statistics show that although abortion rates are in the steady decline since the mid-1990s, birth rates have only started to show a slow increase in 2020 and 2021 and are in a decline again since the start of 2022.

It might look like the newly introduced ‘fetal heartbeat law’ has been the only change to the accessibility of abortion policies since 1992 (when the current abortion law in place was passed) and it is only the government’s narrative that reinforces pro-life views, but there have been some worrying tendencies concerning women’s abortion rights and women’s rights in general.

In a report made by the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe in 2019, Hungary was accused of backsliding in gender equality and women’s rights. The report also highlighted that the government idealized the role of the mother and reinforced gender stereotypes. In October 2020, the government signed an anti-abortion agreement named the Geneva Consensus Declaration together with 31 other – largely authoritarian – governments, that calls on states to promote women’s rights and health without abortion.

In 2022 the state audit office issued a report about Hungary’s education system, stating that it was becoming too feminine, which in the long term could hurt the development of boys and create demographic problems. According to the report, the education system is favouring ‘feminine traits’ and therefore boys are not allowed to develop ‘naturally’.

The report states that ‘boyish traits’ such as innovation and creativity are needed for the optimal development of the economy and therefore the current system of ‘pink education’ is a threat to the functioning of the state. This further reinforces gender stereotypes and talks about women in a highly demeaning way. All these examples reinforce the government’s pro-life rhetoric and attest to the pretense of abortion accessibility in the country.

Additionally, the pro-life voices have not only gotten louder but have also won state recognition and seats in the parliament, as the far-right party Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland) won 6 seats out of 199 in the parliamentary elections in April 2022. The party has been a public supporter of the ‘fetal heartbeat law’. One of their politicians has been pushing the amendment since 2016 and celebrated its passing this September, adding that the protection of fetuses is fulfilled to a higher extent with the new law and that this way the unborn children get to ‘communicate with their mothers’, which they deserve.

These radical pro-life voices and politicians have faced no official retaliation as their views and policy ideas are mostly on par with the government’s, which would be going against their values if they opposed Mi Hazánk’s stance on abortion. The abortion rights of women are not safe in a state where such radical and anti-women voices are given a platform and governmental support in politics.

Hungary is not alone with its negative abortion rights related tendencies in the EU and more specifically in the Central-Eastern European region. In Poland, they further restricted abortion rights in 2020 by saying that serious health concerns of the fetus that could potentially be lethal to it are not reason enough for abortion. This virtually made abortion illegal except for extreme circumstances where the women’s life is in direct danger.

In Slovakia, although no changes were made to the abortion law as of now, there have been 15 attempts at amending it to be more restrictive since 2015. The latest attempt was in 2020, where the failure of an amendment to increase the obligatory waiting period from 2 to 4 days was due to only 1 vote. In general, inaccessible abortion seems to be a Central-Eastern European trend.

The only four countries prohibiting medical abortion are Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania. In Croatia and Romania, the majority of doctors and hospitals deny carrying out an abortion on the basis of the conscience clause. According to the European Abortion Policies Atlas published in 2021 by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network, which ranked accessibility to abortion countries across the world on a scale of 1% to 100%, all the countries of the Central-Eastern European region belonged to the 3 worst categories, with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia performing the worst between them.

Despite the negative trends and years of pro-life rhetoric most Hungarians still seem to favor access to abortion. In an online survey conducted by Ipsos, 70% of the participants said they would support abortion in all or the majority of situations. The average of the survey conducted in various countries globally was 56%.

It is worth noting, however, that even though Hungary did well compared to the public opinion of the other countries in the 2022 survey, the overall trend shows a decline in support for abortion as the percentage of abortion supporters was 79% in 2021 and 78% in 2020 – which may indicate that the government’s rhetoric is working after all.

Pro-abortion public support was also shown at a recent protest, organized in opposition to  the ‘fetal heartbeat law’ on September 28th, 2022. The event was led by two Hungarian civil organizations, Patent Egyesület (a feminist organization aiming to protect and stand up for women’s rights) and aHang (an NGO aiming to amplify social issues). The protest featured speeches by activists and medical professionals, a concert given by a women’s choir and the assembling of a symbolic memorial. The crowd of a couple of thousand people mostly consisted of young people.

In conclusion, abortion accessibility in Hungary is only a façade. Although the abortion law at first glance may not seem more restrictive than that of the average EU country, the realities of getting an abortion are much grimmer. The government and the healthcare system place countless barriers in front of women. The waiting periods and compulsory consultations make time constraints even harder to adhere to, while counsellors and the newly introduced ‘fetal heartbeat law’ are supposed to outright emotionally manipulate women.

The system places an already at-risk group into a position of vulnerability and offers them no stable support but instead leaves them at the mercy of others and outside factors which they cannot control. The inaccessibility is further supported by the strongly pro-life government narratives and the negative tendencies regarding women’s rights in recent years.

With this, Hungary seems to fit the pattern of the Central-Eastern European region, where abortion accessibility is significantly more restricted than to their Western counterparts. Although public opinion seems to still be in support of abortions, the fundamental truth remains this: whoever finds themselves in the position of seeking an abortion will have to depend on a system that will not and does not help them.

[1] https://maszol.ro/kulfold/Europa-nagy-reszeben-nem-biztositott-a-szabad-es-biztonsagos-abortusz ; https://abortion-policies.srhr.org/

[2]https://tasz.hu/terhessegmegszakitas ; https://maternity.hu/araink/

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Dora Berkes
Republikon Institute