Slovak human rights campaigners won their most recent battle to protect the right to legal abortions in December last year. But now, the new conservative-leaning government is using the coronavirus pandemic to signal a new assault on reproductive rights. Photo credit: Freepik / For illustrative purposes.

Czech Rep., May 27 (BD) – Access to legal abortions is well-established in the Czech Republic, and opinion polls on the issue consistently find large majorities of Czech citizens agreeing that abortions should be available at the request of the pregnant woman. However, the issue is somewhat more controversial in Slovakia, the Czech Republic’s more socially conservative sibling; only in December last year, Slovak MPs were asked to vote on whether to force all women requiring abortions to look at an ultrasound image of the fetus before deciding on the procedure. The bill ultimately failed because too few MPs voted, but from those who did vote, more supported the measure than opposed it. The vote was the ninth attempt by legislators to tighten restrictions on abortion in that parliamentary term.

Monica Costa Riba, senior Women’s Rights Campaigner for Amnesty International, declared “a victory for women and for reproductive rights,” and congratulated Slovak MPs for “protecting women’s privacy and autonomy and rejecting any further roll back of women’s hard-fought rights.” However, since then, Slovakia has seen a new government and the uncharted territory of a serious pandemic, and there are now concerns that the victory may turn out to be short-lived.

Like many countries, Slovakia postponed non-essential hospital procedures as part of measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic. However, unlike most of those countries, this has affected access to legal abortions. The new Christian conservative Health Minister, Marek Krajčí (OLANO), said in March that he “does not recommend” having an abortion during the crisis, due to the increased risk of infection for pregnant women with weakened immune systems, though he added that they could still be performed legally if both the woman and the doctor accepted the risk. In practice, however, many hospitals have simply stopped performing the procedure, raising fears that vulnerable women could be left without access to safe abortions.

In response, Krajčí insisted that abortions should not be considered “undelayable procedures”, even though Slovak law allows only allows abortions on request up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Reaction has been swift; Slovak women’s and human rights groups have joined Europe-wide demands for reproductive rights to be maintained throughout the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, and Slovak ombudswoman Mária Patakyová called on Krajčí to guarantee women’s access to safe, legal and timely abortions.

However, many commentators believe that recent developments in this area are a sign of things to come, with more concerted efforts to roll back reproductive and other human rights expected after the coronavirus pandemic has receded. When Patakyová presented her annual human rights report to the Slovak parliament two weeks ago, including her concerns about efforts to restrict legal abortion, the debate descended into a tense confrontation between liberal and far-right MPs. The parliament finally voted not to accept the report. 

Since the debate, two MPs from OLANO, the party of Prime Minister Igor Matovic, have announced plans to push for a full ban on abortions in Slovakia. Predicting a “conservative revolution”, Michal Vašečka, a sociologist from the Bratislava Policy Institute, recently told Slovak news website Aktuality.sk that: “In coming years, we can expect the character of the state to change significantly in Slovakia. I am completely sure that an anti-abortion law will be passed.” The concern among campaigners is that the newly-elected Slovak parliament, with its conservative majority, may succeed in changing the law where the previous parliament failed. 

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