'No progress has been made': Petition to decriminalise abortion in Belgium launched

'No progress has been made': Petition to decriminalise abortion in Belgium launched
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Amnesty International has launched a petition to decriminalise abortion in Belgium. The launch coincides with the first parliamentary session to take place since elections on 9 June.

In Belgium, abortion is accessible up to 12 weeks after conception, and longer if there is a threat to the mother's health. Before an abortion is authorised, the pregnant individual must be informed about adoption and other alternatives as well as "reflecting" on their decision for six days after the initial appointment. Violations of these measures are sanctioned, and medical professionals may conscientiously object to performing an abortion.

These measures are seen as discriminatory, patronising and punitive by rights advocates. "Criminalising abortion in this way does not make it disappear, it just makes it more dangerous, thereby undermining the right to life and health of thousands of people," Julie Capoulade, campaign coordinator for Amnesty International in French-speaking Belgium, stated in a press release published on Thursday.

'Equal and fair access'

Amnesty International argues that people wishing to avail of an abortion will simply travel elsewhere if necessary. This reality is unfair for pregnant individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often cannot afford this option (371 people travelled to the Netherlands for an abortion in 2021). In addition, the six-day reflection period is seen as belittling towards women, as abortion is often carefully considered before showing up at the clinic.

The petition calls on newly elected MPs to see through previous commitments to decriminalise abortion and remove all barriers to accessing the procedure, which should be viewed as a healthcare issue. "As a new mandate begins, it is essential to give this fundamental right all the support it deserves and needs to become fully established in our country," says Capoulade.

The petition also stresses the importance of using inclusive language in order to consider the needs of transgender men and boys, intersex and non-binary people by using the term "pregnant people" and not women in legislation. This will help to ensure "equal and fair access to the right to abortion in Belgium".

Politically, where do we stand?

The outgoing federal coalition had agreed to modify abortion legislation during the mandate just gone, but internal strife derailed the intention somewhat. A bill tabled by the Socialist Party (PS) garnered support from all coalition partners except CD&V. The centre-right party refused to support the motion without an expert evaluation.

However, even when such an evaluation concluded that abortion could be permitted at least 18 weeks after conception and recommended that the reflection period be scrapped, the proposal went no further. The report should not "stay in the drawer", said outgoing Groen MP Eva Platteau at the time.

The French- and Dutch-speaking green parties Ecolo and Groen have played key roles in advocating for abortion rights in the past. After heavy losses suffered in the most recent ballots on 9 June, it is uncertain how much power they will exercise within the Federal Parliament, but neither feature in the probable Arizona coalition made up of N-VA, MR, CD&V, Les Engagés and Vooruit.

N-VA, the kingmaker in federal formation negotiations, is against relaxing abortion regulation any further.

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