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Less Liberal Than on Paper

People living in Germany oppose abortion more than other western Europeans
Source: Rawpixel

One of the most crucial and emotional subjects of current bio-ethical debates is the question of abortion. Women (and their partners) who face such a decision are confronted with a contradictory situation: Abortion has become legal in almost all European and western countries. Yet, the implementation of the law, the daily practise of the respective physicians and clinics, or the regulations for funding an abortion by the healthcare systems are subject to big disputes between politicians, religious leaders and female activists. The positions can be summarised as pro-life (supporting the unborn) versus pro-choice (supporting the woman). In some countries that face declining birth rates, current political discourses seem to aim at a rollback of the liberal abortion laws. At the same time, European countries have become more heterogeneous in terms of religious affiliations, personal religiosity and cultural norms due to increasing percentages of immigrants and their children. Attitudes toward gender equality and women’s rights, sexual liberalization, as well as religiosity, are central to current discourses and developments in immigrant integration in Europe.

Against this background, Sarah Carol (University of Cologne) and Nadja Milewski (University of Rostock) carried out two studies that investigated the attitudes toward abortion among natives and immigrants living in cities in several European countries. Both studies revealed that there is large variation in the attitudes toward abortion among the inhabitants of Europe. Some people – the older, the lower educated and the more religious – either completely or strongly oppose abortion. Younger individuals with high education and no religious affiliation are more supportive of abortion, and a third group is somewhere between these positions. Abortions for medical reasons (be it for the health of the mother or the child) would be more tolerated than those for social reasons. Despite a higher overall acceptance of medical reasons for abortion, the percentage of those European natives who would “always” approve of abortion for medical reasons was about two thirds, but still around one-third of women and men would “never” or only “in specific cases” accept an abortion. 

The authors also found considerable variation in the attitudes toward abortion among European natives. For example, women and men in France and Sweden – countries with rather liberal policies and attitudes toward gender equality – are more liberal toward abortion than those living in German-speaking countries, the UK, Belgium or the Netherlands. Women and men in Germany turned out to be the most conservative (i.e., the least approving) of abortion as compared to the residents in the other countries. This is interesting as Germany has – on paper – the most liberal regulations of abortion. An explanation for this seemingly counterintuitive finding may be that the public discourse and the actual implementation of the healthcare laws contradict the abortion law.

The results of the two studies further suggest a growing diversity in attitudes toward abortion in and between European countries because the immigrants of the first and second generations, who came from countries with Muslim traditions and less liberal regulations, had much more conservative attitudes toward abortion than natives. These differences could not be fully explained by religion, religiosity and education. Therefore, it can be concluded that the attitudes toward abortion in Europe may become, on average, more conservative in the short-term future.

Overall, the results suggest that the right to abortion remains a controversial topic – even in democracies. This also implies that policymakers who are concerned that abortion rates may increase if laws became more liberal than they are today may overestimate the acceptance of abortion.


Author(s) of the original publication: 
Nadja Milewski & Sarah Carol