LONDON — Lawmakers in Slovakia are scheduled to debate a proposed law Friday that would compel women seeking an abortion to first have an ultrasound and listen to the heartbeat of the embryo or fetus, a move many groups have decried as a backward step for women’s rights.
The bill was submitted by three members of the conservative Slovak National Party, who wrote that it is intended “to ensure that women are informed about the current stage of their pregnancy” before having an abortion.
It would oblige doctors to show a woman ultrasound images “about the development stage of the embryo or fetus whose development is to be terminated.” The draft bill states that “if technically feasible, the physician must also enable her to listen to the heartbeat of the embryo or fetus.”
The authors of the bill wrote that “the proposed draft law has positive impacts on marriage, parenthood and family” and that “society does not consider the induced termination of pregnancy a good solution.”
In a series of demonstrations this week in Bratislava, protesters argued the draft law violates women’s fundamental human rights, including the rights to privacy, autonomy and the ability to make medical decisions free from coercion.
In September, the Slovak Parliament rejected four other bills attempting to ban or restrict abortion in the largely Catholic central European country, but this latest bill passed its first reading last month.
Silvia Shahzad, a lawmaker with the conservative Ordinary People political party, says she will be voting against the proposal.
“To try to change the opinions of women about their pregnancy with this kind of pressure, this is not acceptable,” Shahzad said.
In Slovakia, abortion is legal upon request in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; it is available after that for certain medical reasons.
Earlier this month, more than 30 organizations, including Amnesty International and Marie Stopes International, wrote to Slovak parliamentarians expressing their “deep concern” about the proposed law.
“If this legislation is adopted, Slovakia would be the only EU member state to impose these harmful requirements on women,” the groups wrote, adding the abortion requirements would violate several international human rights treaties Slovakia has ratified.
Similar letters were sent by European legislators and the Council of Europe.
The World Health Organization does not recommend a routine ultrasound before abortion. The UN health agency says abortions should be “delivered in a way that respects a woman’s dignity, guarantees her right to privacy and is sensitive to her needs and perspectives.”
Hillary Margolis, a senior research at Human Rights Watch, said the provisions in Slovakia’s draft bill would intimidate some women from obtaining an abortion.
“These are clearly tactics meant to potentially stigmatize women, humiliate them and subject them to degrading treatment,” she said.
In the US, seven states have similar provisions obliging women to have an ultrasound and listen to a fetal heartbeat, according to Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute. The 2011 law in Texas was challenged, but an appeals court ruled the provisions, which also compel doctors to provide a description of the ultrasound image, did not violate the U.S. constitution.
“What’s happening in Slovakia is unfortunately a replay of what’s been happening in the US,” Nash said. “It’s worrying to see this kind of legislation being introduced elsewhere now. Just because it’s been successful in America doesn’t mean it should be exported.”
Dr. Jennifer Conti, a spokeswoman for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said it was medically inaccurate to refer to a “heartbeat” in the early stages of pregnancy. “We are not talking about a fully formed heart,” Conti said.
She said there is no evidence to show that introducing stricter criteria for abortions reduces the numbers of women seeking them.
“What we see is that when you make it more difficult to get an abortion, the rate of women dying or having complications or finding other alternatives goes up,” she said.
Leah Hoctor, Europe director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, also worried about the “demoralizing” impact of the proposed regulations on doctors and nurses in Slovakia.
“I could imagine for medical professionals in Slovakia this could be very troubling because they’re being forced to perform these procedures,” she said.
“This sends a message to women across Slovakia and other countries about the very dangerous role politics can play when it comes to women’s access to health care.”
Across Europe, 39 countries have legalized abortion on request. Six countries only allow abortion in rare instances, such as if the woman’s life is at risk: Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Poland and San Marino.
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