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Europeans have voted on abortion policy. How's that worked out? Anything to be learned? Or not?

Europe’s Abortion Lesson

How democracies compromised on the issue after political debate, not judicial fiat.

By The Editorial Board, WSJ

May 8, 2022 5:45 pm ET

American progressives, and some on the right, have convinced themselves that legal abortion will disappear the moment the Supreme Court reverses its Roe v. Wade precedent. Since the Court is contemplating this, readers might appreciate examples from democracies that have grappled with this difficult issue without nine Justices to tell them what to do.

We mean Europe, where abortion is legal in most countries, usually with limits that are more strict than America’s and generally as a result of democratic choice.

The notable feature of abortion in Europe is that each country has tailored its laws to local mores after political debate. Britain and the Netherlands are among the more permissive, allowing abortion under most circumstances up to 24 weeks of pregnancy—and at taxpayer expense in Britain’s National Health Service.

Poland and a handful of small, majority-Catholic countries are at the other end of the spectrum, banning abortion under most circumstances although women can avail of free movement within the European Union to travel to another country.

Abortion in Sweden is available on-demand up to the 18th week, and after that only with medical permission if the fetus isn’t viable. In Italy it’s in the first 90 days. Many countries, such as Denmark, Germany and Belgium, allow abortion on demand up to the 12th week, while France recently extended it to 14 and in Portugal it’s 10. Countries tend to apply stricter limits after those times, such as requiring sign-off from multiple doctors or allowing later abortions only if the mother’s life is in danger.

Without court rulings mandating abortion access, European voters by and large have chosen to permit it in a way that would disappoint American pro-lifers. But even liberal and largely secular Europeans impose the sort of limitation on abortion that America’s pro-choice left claims to find intolerable. Mississippi’s ban, which is the law at issue now at the Supreme Court, begins after 15 weeks.

European laws also include waiting periods for abortion in some countries, such as seven days in Italy and three in Germany. Denmark and the Netherlands are among several countries that require parental consent before minors can obtain an abortion. Germany and Belgium require counseling first.

Keeping abortion politics in the democratic sphere rather than the courts has prevented it from becoming a destructive front in the culture war. This doesn’t mean abortion laws are immutable. Ireland in 2018 legalized abortion via a referendum, while Germany recently lifted a ban on “advertising” abortion services. But such changes happen as social mores change and via persuasion of undecided lawmakers and voters rather than shrill fundraising letters. They tend to represent a consensus that has a chance to remain stable for some time.

Note that European abortion policy has mostly ended up where opinion polls suggest most Americans would prefer to be: with abortion legal in the first trimester but with more restrictions later, and with some checks such as a waiting period or parental notification for minors. The main abortion lesson from Europe is that voters can be trusted with such an important issue.

If the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization as last week’s leak suggests, this new abortion politics will be an adjustment for partisans—on both sides—accustomed to haranguing 100 Senators over Supreme Court nominations rather than persuading millions of voters. But what a relief if America can look forward one day to the relative political peace Europe enjoys on this contentious moral question.

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