Is the legal status of abortion in the Netherlands under threat?

On Saturday, November 16, thousands of people participated in a protest against abortion (not as photographed in the feature image). The Christian anti-abortion organisation Schreeuw om Leven Foundation organised its annual march in Utrecht. According to the organisation, there were about 10,000 people in attendance, a number that the Utrecht municipality feels is greatly exaggerated.

This comes just after a study has shown that young people in the Netherlands have more conservative beliefs than their parents. This can be seen in the number of young people who took part in the Schreeuw om Leven march on Saturday and Exxpose, a young Christian group calling for the Netherlands to make prostitution illegal.

Translation: “Very encouraging that young people are more critical about abortion than many older people! Something is going to change. We want better protection for unborn lives and better care for women in need. This can’t stay that way! ”- Kees van der Staaij at the #MarsvoorhetLeven

During its marches, Schreeuw om Leven also disseminates information about abortion and according to health experts, there are a lot of inaccuracies in the information that they are spreading about the subject.

Prior to the demonstration, Schreeuw om Leven hosted a meeting in the Jaarbeurs in Utrecht. Amongst the invited speakers were SGP MP and leader Kees van der Staaij, Gert-Jan Segers of the ChristenUnie (Christian Union political party) and Kees van Helden, Director of Schreeuw om Leven. The MPs were there to encourage the protesters and let them know that they are fighting the “good fight.”

Schreeuw om Leven is also known to demonstrate at abortion clinics and despite criticism, Van Helden believes it is important to do so. “Every week, at abortion clinics, we find women who we convince to cancel their abortions at the last minute. As long as we stand there and can convince people to not get an abortion, that means that there is something structurally wrong with the whole process. So something really needs to change,” he said.

After the meeting in the Jaarbeurs, the participants walked to the Smakkelaarsveld, across the Lange Viestraat towards the Domstraat and then to the Domplein. Dozens of demonstrators stood at the foot of the Dom Tower to let their voice be heard.

Netherlands’ conservatives and their abortion stance

SGP party chairman Kees van der Staaij was present at the event in Utrecht and said that the number of attendees was encouraging. “The fact that young people are more critical does not mean that they are in all cases against abortion. But they are open to see if we can remove any reasons that make women choose such an intervention, such as financial distress or social problems,” he said.

This is the 27th time that the march has been organised by Schreeuw om Leven.

Counter protests – Handmaid’s Tale style

A few counter-protests also took place in Utrecht during the march by Schreeuw om Leven. Some women could be seen wearing the familiar red clothing described in Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other counter-protesters could be seen displaying their bare stomachs with “Boss of my own Belly” written on them. Some banners could also be found with the text: “Keep your church out of my womb.”

From Domplein, the march continued through Zadelstraat and finally ended up at the Jaarbeurs via the Moreelsebrug. With the march, the organisation claims that they want to “send a powerful message to society and politicians and also stand up for the protection of unborn life.”

Abortion in the Netherlands

Abortion has been legal in the Netherlands since 1984, and much of that is owed to the actions of the “Dolle Mina” in the 1970s and 1980s. The legal status of abortion in the Netherlands comes with a few conditions. For example, pregnancy after week 24 can no longer be terminated and women have a compulsory “reflection time” of at least five days.

The current ruling parties in the Netherlands have agreed with each other that they will temporarily leave ‘medical — ethical issues’ just how they are. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t speak up and condemn certain medical practices if they are against their party standpoints. To this end, conservative and right-wing parties are usually speaking up against abortion and euthanasia in the Netherlands.

For example, Gert-Jan Segers, leader of the ChristenUnie, was a guest speaker at the March for Life in Utrecht. Earlier this week, D66 published a video in which they emphasised that women are the ‘bosses in their own bodies’, and that it should always remain so in the Netherlands.

My womb, my choice … Or is it not?

The right of self-determination over one’s own body is currently the subject of debate in various parts of the world – and it shouldn’t be. The abortion discussion shouldn’t be happening in the halls of government but between a woman and her doctor.

In Ireland, two-thirds of the population recently voted in a legal referendum. Under the hashtag #HomeToVote, Irish nationals living abroad returned home to vote for the legalisation of abortion. The move was hailed worldwide as a major win for women in Ireland.

The US as an example for the Netherlands?

The public debate on abortion has been revived since Trump became the US president. While he may not be the ideal example of a religious conservative politician, trump surrounds himself with conservative politicians and fanatical Christians who would love to see the legal status of abortion became a thing of the past in the US.

Since Trump is allowed to appoint Supreme Court judges, his Republican advisers have been pushing him to appoint judges that are anti-abortion and this has led to widespread protests from American liberals, especially women. Conservative judges, such as the recently appointed Brett Kavanaugh, are expected to approach claims about reproductive rights with scepticism and a biblical stubbornness that is meant to frustrate the Pro-choice camp.

Despite the global trend to reform laws to prevent deaths from unsafe abortion, some countries including Nicaragua and El Salvador enforce draconian and discriminatory laws that still prohibit abortion in almost all circumstances.

In the US and other countries, there is activism to curb the previously established right to abortion. For example, in 2019, the US State of Alabama passed a law in which abortion is only permitted if the mother’s life is in danger, without a rape or incest exception, and in which doctors and others who perform abortion can get a prison sentence of up to 99 years. The state of Georgia wants to make abortion possible only in the first six weeks of pregnancy, and restrictive abortion laws have also been adopted in the states of Utah, Ohio, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Question is: how is such a law going to stop abortion? The answer is that it doesn’t! Such a law will only increase the number of women who will end up dead from unsafe abortion practises.

The role of religion in the discussion

Although different religious movements have always rejected abortion, the strict legal prosecution of the practise only began in the 19th century. The practise and legislation per country now differ greatly. There is no clear standard in international law that states that abortion may or may not be permitted. It is clear, however, that criminalising or making abortion impossible can violate women’s autonomy, the right to life and health, and women’s privacy.

Unsafe abortions: 25 million cases per year

An estimated 1 in 4 pregnancies worldwide ends each year in an abortion. According to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, an American non-profit organisation, as of 2010–2014, an estimated 36 abortions occur each year per 1,000 women aged 15–44 in developing regions, compared with 27 in developed regions.

Unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of death for mothers worldwide, an estimated 25 million unsafe abortions occur every year.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) factsheet on abortion, 40 per cent of women of childbearing age live worldwide in countries with very restrictive abortion laws or where abortion is legal but neither available nor accessible.

When governments restrict access to abortion, people are forced to resort to illegal, unsafe abortion, especially those who cannot afford to travel or seek private care. Between 2010–2014, on average, 56 million induced (safe and unsafe) abortions occurred worldwide each year. Around 25 million unsafe abortions were estimated to have taken place worldwide each year, almost all in developing countries. Among these, 8 million were carried out in the least- safe or dangerous conditions.

The abortion discussion in the Netherlands

Every once in a while, the conservative (and religious) right tries to restrict women’s rights. Conservative right-wing politicians are constantly trying to outdo each other on who gets to restrict women’s self-determination the most.

Bringing back the abortion discussion isn’t a move forward. Let’s keep the discussion about abortion where it belongs: in the doctor’s office between the doctor and the woman.

The most painful thing is that conservative groups and religious types keep on taking the abortion talk to the halls of government when in reality, the discussion isn’t supposed to be happening there at all. These women have to face impossible choices and religious organisations like Schreeuw om Leven aren’t making it easy for them.

The stories that religious organisations tell about abortions and abortion clinics are usually false. Women do not take the important decision to undergo an abortion on a whim. There are 15-year-old girls and/or single mothers who really see no other way out. There are also parents who have to give up what they want the most because their baby will either be stillborn or severely disabled after birth. How is that a decision that one makes on a whim?

In the Netherlands, pregnant women receive an ultrasound when they are twenty weeks pregnant. This is intended to detect medical complications so that doctors can treat the mother or foetus if need be. If there will be complications, the parents are then given the choice to make an informed decision. Political parties like the ChristenUnie (Christian Union) and religious organisations like Schreeuw om Leven want to deprive these parents of that choice. They also intend to dictate to women what to do with their own bodies.

It is simple: if you’re a Christian and abortion is against the tenets of your faith, then don’t get one! But don’t dictate to others what they do with their bodies or how to go about their own lives! Keep your religiosity to yourself and also keep it out of other people’s bodies!

Amnesty International has called on countries all over the world to not just legalise abortion but also guarantee broad access to safe and legal abortion. Amnesty states that access to safe abortion services is a human right. “People have abortions all the time, regardless of what the law says, and it is in the best interest of women all over the world to make it legal so as to give them access to safer abortion services,” they said.

According to international human rights law, everyone has the right to a healthy life, and the right to be free from violence, torture or cruel treatment. The same law state that decisions about your body should only be up to you. Making abortion a crime is a violation of human rights. Forcing someone to bear an unwanted pregnancy is a violation of their right to privacy and physical autonomy. And no one should be forced to have an abortion either.

Abortion must stay legal in the Netherlands because criminalising it isn’t going to stop anyone from getting an abortion. It will only increase the number of deaths from unsafe abortion practises. Furthermore, what type of “liberal country” would the Netherlands be if it took away women’s right to decide what they do with their own bodies? True liberalism grants an individual the right to decide how they live, the direction of their lives, what they do with their own bodies, etc.

Getting an abortion can be a very tough decision to make. And demonstrations from religious groups in front of abortion clinics can make it even tougher. Ultimately, no one can know why a woman would choose to make such a choice. The only person who can decide whether it is a good decision or not is the woman.

No matter your opinion on the matter, in the end, it’s about someone else’s body. We can’t force anyone to donate an organ or get a tattoo, so why should we force a woman to give birth to a child she doesn’t want? That’s just wrong and unfair!

Women are not baby-making machines. They are human beings, and if they do not want to carry a foetus to term, then they should not be forced to. Pregnancy is not an easy period for any woman. It is scary and not every woman survives it. So if a woman does not want to go through it, she should not have to! She also shouldn’t have to explain her reason to anyone!

For now, the legal status of abortion in the Netherlands isn’t the end of the story. Abortion is a fragile human right that we must continue to fight for. A lot still has to be done to keep religious groups from getting their way in the Netherlands. We shouldn’t let them enact the same abortion laws they have in Alabama and other places where women are treated like objects and second-class citizens. That would be an injustice to women in the Netherlands.

What do you think about the legal status of abortion in the Netherlands? Let us know in the comment section.

Feature Image: Nigel Hanlon/Flickr 

Chuka Nwanazia
Chuka Nwanazia
A renegade wordsmith, freelance writer, poet, and digital marketer based in Amsterdam. Besides writing, he extremely enjoys traveling around Europe in search of old and rare books, writing poems while riding the train to nowhere, performing at poetry events, spending too much time reading books, contemplating the meaning of life, preparing tasty dishes and desserts, and searching for the perfect bookshelf.


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