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When the only available abortion is in a war zone

‘It is very scary that you could even die and they will not help you.’

Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:

  • 🇺🇦 New research shows Ukrainian refugees in Europe are having to go back to Ukraine for basic sexual and reproductive healthcare.
  • 🇪🇺 Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania all have poor records on sexual and reproductive rights, despite being part of the European Union.
  • ❗ The rest of Europe is not immune to this illiberal backlash, as a recent anti-abortion campaign in Paris shows.

Read on for more. And if you want to stay up-to-date on feminism worldwide, follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, feminist groups (and this newsletter) warned that alongside the usual catastrophic consequences of war, there would also be a devastating impact on reproductive rights.

It was an easily predictable disaster. The majority of the eight million refugees who fled Ukraine in the aftermath of the invasion were women, and Ukraine’s neighbours — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania — have some of Europe’s worst records on sexual and reproductive health. Abortion is all but illegal in Poland, a fact that has led to the deaths of multiple women since 2021. Medical abortion, the easiest and cheapest way to end an unwanted pregnancy, is illegal in Hungary and Slovakia. The morning after pill is not provided over the counter. Romania, meanwhile, is backsliding dangerously on provision of abortion and contraception.

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Now, a team of human rights organisations has begun to quantify the true extent of the fallout for Ukrainian refugees who need sexual and reproductive healthcare. In interviews with more than 80 refugees, service providers and experts, they found that many refugees are returning to Ukraine for this care. Reproductive healthcare provision is so poor in Europe that women and gender-diverse people now have to re-enter an active warzone to get it.

“Ukrainian girls are terribly afraid to get pregnant,” one refugee in Poland told the researchers. “After all, here there are no options. It is very scary that you could even die and they will not help you, as we see in the news,” she said.

“Let’s just say, no one would wish that on anyone, not even their worst enemy.”

People cross borders for abortions in Europe all the time. This is true not just for those in Malta, Poland or Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal or unobtainable, but also for France, Italy and Germany, where term limits, medical deserts and conscientious objection routinely force people to seek care elsewhere. Every time someone has to travel for an abortion, they must tangle with the cost of the procedure, transport and accommodation; the need to take time off from work or caring duties; and a ticking gestational clock. In 2023, they must also weigh up the cost of placing themselves in the line of fire.

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The researchers found the situation was even worse for Roma women and LGBTQIA+ refugees, who face other forms of discrimination when seeking support. Roma women were more likely to be refused medical care or find themselves segregated from other refugees on the basis of their race. Hungary ended legal gender recognition for trans and intersex people in 2020, and recently passed a law encouraging people to report queer families to authorities. Queer Ukrainians in Poland must navigate the country’s notorious “anti-LGBT zones”, established by hundreds of local councils in recent years.

“They enter provinces that are so-called ‘LGBT free,’ where systemically they get the information that nobody wants them there,” Justyna Nakielska from the Campaign Against Homophobia says in the report.

Of course, a lack of reproductive healthcare, endemic anti-Roma discrimination and institutionalised homophobia and transphobia were already part of daily life in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia — and beyond. The experience of Ukrainian refugees only highlights how dire the existing reality was for millions of Europeans.

And the people helping Ukrainians navigate these hostile systems are the same human rights activists who have been stepping in to do the governments’ jobs for them for decades. Activists like Justyna Wydrzyńska from Abortion Dream Team, who was convicted by a Polish court this year for helping a woman end a pregnancy during the pandemic. Or the Slovakian and Romanian LGBTQIA+ activists who, according to the report, face “violence, hate-speech and vandalism” in the course of their work due to rising homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.

Some of the refugees interviewed by the researchers report being shocked to find the situation was so bad when they got to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or Romania. They are right to be shocked. We all should be. Each of these countries is a member of the European Union, a bloc supposedly based on “a strong commitment to promoting and protecting human rights”. But the reality of the European Union for marginalised people is often a long way from the values on which it was founded. (Reminder: Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament comes from Malta, the only member state to completely ban abortion, and she has a long history of voting against reproductive rights).

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Nor is Europe’s illiberal backlash is restricted to the borders of Ukraine. Last month, I went to pick up a bike from the Vélib’ station in front of my home in Paris, only to find it had been plastered with an anti-abortion message. “What if you had let it live?,” the official-looking sticker on the mudguard read, accompanied by a picture of a foetus and a child on a bicycle. The messages were everywhere, suggesting a well-funded and well-organised campaign to oppose abortion in a country where it has been legal since 1975.

Sexual and reproductive rights need defending everywhere, from countries where abortion and gender transition are banned to countries where those rights are protected by law. After fleeing a war, Ukrainian refugees deserve better than to be met with discrimination and legal barriers when they need medical care. They deserve better than having to cross back into that warzone to see a gynaecologist or get hold of hormones or find the morning after pill. And we all deserve better than a Europe where our right to bodily autonomy depends on our postcode.

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