Arbitrary Abortion Laws, from South Dakota to Greece

Posted on 10.06.2011 by Amy

Cross-posted with Gender Across Borders.

I have been planning a trip to Greece. So as you read this, I am taking a break from my job at an abortion clinic to gaze out on something like this photo.

Don’t hate me.

In addition to researching Greece’s legendary beaches...and history -- and the country’s protests in response to austerity measures -- I decided to research abortion laws there. In part, I wanted to know how open I could be about my work. But I was also curious. As recent and unparalleled legal attacks in this country have shown, abortion laws can be fascinating studies in systemic absurdity. When one belief system (the one that says abortion is murder) hits an irreconcilable belief system (the one that says women are more human than fetuses) the legal results are convoluted and bizarre. Governments try to compromise incompatible perspectives by regulating those procedures that involve slightly larger fetuses, or by making it harder for women to access abortion.

For example, at the end of March, South Dakota adopted a measure (which was blocked after a legal challenge) that would make a woman wait 72 hours for an abortion after her first visit with a doctor and force her to visit a crisis pregnancy center (havens of religiously fueled brainwashing) in the interim. A federal appeals court recently upheld parts of a 2005 law in that state requiring doctors to tell a patient that abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being” and inform the woman that she has “an existing relationship with that unborn human being.”

In June, Ohio’s House of Representatives passed a measure banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which happens as early as six weeks -- before many women even realize they are pregnant.

Since states here in the first half of 2011 enacted a record number of restrictions on a procedure that is a woman’s legal and human right, I was feeling a bit jaded as I went to research laws in Greece. Here’s what I found:

Abortion in Greece is fully legal up to 12 weeks. In cases of rape or incest it is legal up to 19 weeks, and in cases of fetal abnormalities up to 24 weeks. Minors need consent from their parents or guardian. Then I found this an interesting line from an undated United Nations document on abortion in Greece: “A physician other than the one performing the abortion must confirm the existence of valid grounds for the abortion.”

I wonder how that works in practice. If a woman cannot afford another pregnancy, or will lose her job if she remains pregnant, is that considered valid grounds? If a woman considers abortion a positive step that will allow her to pursue the life she wants to live, is that valid? I remember reading about how legendary Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, murdered in 2009, had to endure similar regulations by having another doctor sign off on his patients’ choices. But what happens if a doctor decides a woman’s reasons for terminating are not “valid”?

Greece’s law also reflects a prevalent discomfort with abortion in the second trimester. While some abortion clinics in the United States will perform procedures up to 20 weeks and beyond, first-trimester procedures are much easier to talk about. The pro-choice movement has gone to great lengths to celebrate the fact that most abortions occur in the first trimester. This attitude has further marginalized women who terminate later in pregnancy, perhaps because they have struggled to afford an abortion, or to get time off from work, or maybe because they did not realize they were pregnant, or simply needed several weeks to make a difficult decision.

The rape exception, to me, is proof that abortion laws are primarily about controlling women. If abortion after 12 weeks is murder, why is it more acceptable for women who have been raped to commit murder?

While Greece’s abortion law may be more restrictive overall than those in the United States, I wondered what the situation was like on the ground. In the United States, for example, state restrictions, violent attacks and a lack of providers have made abortion virtually inaccessible for women in rural areas. In 2008, 87% of counties were without an abortion provider, and a few states, including South Dakota, have only one clinic.

Greece apparently has one of the highest rates of abortion in Europe, with rates that seem similar to the United States -- where one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Some researchers have attributed Greece’s abortion rate to a relatively low rate of contraceptive use and a lack of education about sexuality in schools. The Greek Orthodox Church condemns abortion. According to the UN, family planning was illegal in Greece until 1980, and women and their partners controlled family size using a combination of withdrawal, condoms and (illegal but tacitly permitted) abortion. Abortion was legalized in the mid-1980s, reportedly in part to maintain the integrity of the legal system, since the common practice of illegal abortion was not being prosecuted.

Here’s the bizarre kicker from the end of the UN document:

A large number of illegal abortions are still performed in Greece because the public is not yet fully aware of the new abortion law. Despite liberalization of the law on abortion, advertising of abortion services (excluding information supplied in family planning centres) remains a criminal offence.

So abortion is legal, sometimes, but advertising it is still illegal...and many women do not have the information to access the safe care that is their legal right? That’s a convoluted situation that rivals that of South Dakota.

While I am an outsider to Greek culture, and recognize that laws and their meanings vary widely from place to place, I also think abortion laws worldwide are generally inspired by widespread forces of patriarchy, religious fanatacism and unrealistic thinking. For readers who know more about Greek abortion laws than what I was able to collect through Google searches, please contact me and let me know. I’m flying out there with the comforting knowledge that abortion was apparently accepted in ancient Greece. I’ll let that sink in that while touring Athens, the birthplace of democracy, where protesters -- women and men -- are raging against other set of convoluted government decisions.