Since October 2019, the Belgian Federal Parliament has been examining a bill on abortion.
On March 12, the debate was postponed after the deputies requested for the Council of State to give an opinion prior to examining the newly submitted amendments for legislation in the Chamber (one of the two instances of the Belgian Parliament). Previously, in February, the Council of State had already pronounced an opinion on the overall legality of the bill’s content.
The bill contains several provisions to allow easier access to abortion.
- Increasing the upper legal time limit from 12 to 18 weeks (4 ½ months pregnant).
- There would no longer be any penalties for not complying with the law as long as the woman consents. This implies that doctors who perform abortions, even beyond 18 weeks of pregnancy, would no longer face penalties. Thus, all the previous laws governing abortion in the criminal code are effectively rendered null and void.
- Reducing the required reflection period to make a decision after the first a consultation with a doctor from six days to 48 hours (except for medical emergencies).
- Eliminating the requirement to inform pregnant women about the financial, social and psychological support legally available for families, mothers (married or not) and their children, as well as the options for giving up a child for adoption. Instead, medical and psychological support would be proposed, but only after the abortion has been performed.
- Conditions for terminating pregnancy for medical reasons would also be more inclusive. Currently this act can only be performed “when it is certain that the unborn child will be suffering from a particularly serious affection recognized as incurable at the time of diagnosis”. However, the proposed bill would provide that terminating pregnancy would be allowed if there is a “high risk, according to the current state of science
- Health establishments would be prohibited from concluding agreements with doctors which exclude the practice of abortion.
- Regarding the “offense of obstructing abortion”, the scope would be more comprehensive and there would be stronger penalties. “Anyone who tries physically or in any way whatsoever to prevent a woman from having an abortion” could be penalized either by jail for 3-12 months and/or a fine of 100 to 500 €.
- Abortion would be qualified as a normal medical procedure, defining it as a patient’s right which implies that medical personnel would be obliged to comply with the patient’s request and treat abortion as a form of healthcare.
The Belgian Council of State issued an opinion on the law, which highlighted several contradictions. Regarding the sanctions for obstructing abortion, the Council points out that the application scope is unclear: is only disinformation sanctioned, or opinions as well? What if a partner wants to keep the child? Would that be construed as “pressure” and therefore as a criminal offence?
However, the Council of State has remained fairly vague in its’ opinion on the rest of the text, referring to the European Court of Human Rights’ case law, which leaves individual States “broad judicial leeway” for interpreting the legal framework for abortion.
A petition opposing this bill has already been signed by more than 750 healthcare professionals. They protest that it “ruins ethical guidelines” and “upsets the necessary balance between a woman’s freedom and the respect for the unborn child growing and developing in her body.” “Trying to make people believe that abortion is similar to any other health care procedure, it is first and foremost lying to women,” they declare. On March 10, a collective group representing 2,500 caregivers who oppose the bill, held a press conference requesting an audience with the deputies.
In an editorial published in “Libre Belgique” Eric Vermeer, an ethicist, psychologist and nurse who counsels women who have undergone abortion, denounces this “gag law which imposes silence”. He explains that “in the near future abortion may be considered as a medical act, completely dissociated from any ethical questioning.” “Tomorrow, will therapists still be allowed to talk about the various negative consequences of abortion, in particular the post-abortion syndrome, which the majority of caregivers concerned recognize as a known side-effect? (…) Without in any way judging the person who decides to terminate a pregnancy, all therapists understand the importance of offering support and being available to listen with kindness and empathy. “