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‘Taboo in Austrian society’: How women still face barriers accessing abortion

Abortion may be decriminalised in Austria, but there are several hurdles women must go through which can make it incredibly difficult in much of the country.

Switzerland allows abortion until the 13th week. Photo: Gayatri Malhotra/Unsplash
Abortion is legal per choice within the first three months in Austria - but very expensive. Photo: Gayatri Malhotra/Unsplash

Nobody knows exactly how many women get abortions yearly in Austria, though estimates are around 30,000 a year.

There are no reliable concrete numbers because the procedure is not covered by health insurance in the country, people need to pay for it themselves, and therefore not measured by Statistik Austria.

Optative abortion has been a decriminalised medical procedure since 1975 in Austria. Women can discontinue a pregnancy per choice within the first three months – before the 16th pregnancy week, counting from the date of the last menstrual period.

They must go through a consultation with a doctor but don’t have to disclose the reasons for the abortion. Instead, the consultation will usually decide which abortion method is better for the patient’s case.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is abortion legal in Austria?

But prices are high, starting at around €350 to €550, which patients must pay themselves. Even finding someone to perform the procedure can be difficult. 

“There is a need for uniform pricing and the assumption of costs by health insurance companies, as well as nationwide offers by clinics that offer abortions (at best both medicinal and surgical, so that those affected have a choice)”, says Anna Maria Lampert, a board member of CHANGES for women a non-profit association in Vienna that assist women with information and financing for abortion procedures.

Lampert explains that some Austrian states have few or no offer of abortion clinics or doctors qualified to make the procedure.

“In Burgenland, there is neither a public hospital nor a private clinic offering abortions. In Vorarlberg, Tyrol and Upper Austria, there is only one doctor in each province, with no backup staffing”, she says.

This also raises costs, as many people need to travel to get the procedure.

According to Austrian law, medical staff can also refuse to participate in abortion based on their personal beliefs, making the practice even more taboo, especially outside of the capital Vienna.

“Abortion is still a big taboo in Austrian society. In rural areas, people don’t get in touch with the topic. CHANGES for women are often either the only contact point for women with unwanted pregnancies or the only ones who treat them with respect and without judgement or prejudice.”

READ ALSO: Violence against women in the spotlight in Austria after horrific killings

Lampert also mentioned that the topic is often depicted in a “very dramatic” way in the media, showing people who get abortions as “traumatised and self-centred”.

“It would be much easier if the political and social environment would react more favourably and accept each individual’s personal decision”, she adds.

Still, women have the right

Even though they need to cover the costs themselves, the fact that people do have a choice to get an abortion – without having to justify their decision – is still a differential in Austria. Especially taking into account the different policies of neighbouring countries.

Feminist collective Ciocia Wienia supports people from Poland and other countries where access to abortion is difficult or impossible in organising a legal procedure in Vienna.

“We provide information about reproductive rights and available forms of abortion in Austria. We help organise travel, accommodation, abortion procedure, and translation. Whenever possible, we offer financial support”, the group – which prefers to work anonymously, told The Local.

The fact that in Austria, abortion is legal and can be done anonymously allows the group to help women get access to the procedure. Even if they are not Austrians nor legal residents.

READ ALSO: Austria’s top court legalises same-sex marriage

“People do not even have to speak German. The clinics we work with speak multiple languages, and our volunteers also assist as translators when necessary. Additionally, people do not have to use their real names at the clinic”, the group tells us.

This was the case with Lilian, who found out she was pregnant while moving back to her home country in South America – where elective abortions are illegal – and came back to Austria to get the procedure anonymously.

“The feeling of insecurity and the lack of legal support made me give up trying to get an abortion in my home country. I had a link to a country where it was legalised, I could have medical support and do it in a respectful way, so I came back”.

She said the process was relatively simple: she found the clinic after an online search, sent them an email and scheduled the appointment. There, she had a private consultation with a doctor who explained her options and how the procedure would go. Then, in less than an hour, everything was done, and she could go home.

“The overall impression is that it is done in a respectful and humane way. There was no judgement at any part of the process, only guidance and an educational part on how to avoid reoccurrence”, she explains to The Local.

Many clinics in Vienna offer abortion and several other reproductive services, including regular gynecologic appointments, orientation for young girls, and contraceptive implants, for example.

Reproductive rights

The activists in Austria demand not only that costs for the procedure be taken by health insurers but also free access to contraceptives and care.

“The ultimate goal of our activism is a total decriminalisation of abortion and free and safe of other reproductive rights, such as emergency contraception, abortion, sterilisation, and anonymous birth”, Ciocia Wienia says.

Anna Maria, with CHANGES for women, agrees that the measures need to start earlier: “to prevent unwanted pregnancies, there needs to be free access to the contraceptive of choice and up-to-date sexual education for all”.

There has been very little political talk about changing medical coverage or reproductive laws in Austria, but the situation in the United States, where a leaked Supreme Court draft document showed the court is now in favour of overturning the ruling that made abortion legal has brought the issue of reproductive rights back to the centre stage worldwide – including in the alpine country.

Useful links

Termination of pregnancy – the federal government
Abortion – Gesundheit.gv.at
Women’s rights group and feminist collectives – CHANGES for women and Ciocia Wienia

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UKRAINE

‘No country is an island’: Is it time Austria abandoned neutrality?

As the war in Ukraine continues, questions are starting to surface about Austria’s defence capabilities - especially regarding Austria’s permanently neutral status. Does neutrality protect Austria - or are things in need of a shakeup?

'No country is an island': Is it time Austria abandoned neutrality?

As a neutral country, Austria is not a member of a global military alliance and is committed to a stance of engaged neutrality. 

But Austria’s position is now being called into question following the recent publication of an open letter to Austria’s Federal President, Federal Government and National Council. 

READ MORE: Majority of Austrians reject joining NATO

The letter was initiated by co-founder of the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) and publishing manager Veit Dengler, and former Supreme Court President and ex-NEOS politician Irmgard Griss. Supporters include military and economic experts, as well as Austrian authors and former ambassadors.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Austria’s politicians have held the line that Austria is a neutral country and always will be.

But it remains to be seen how that will look amid changing security concerns across Europe.

Here’s what you need to know.

What was in the open letter?

The open letter called for “a serious, nationwide discussion about Austria’s future security and defence policy in light of the war in Ukraine and the adoption of a new security doctrine”.

The letter, which was published in German and English, said: “Our neutrality – interpreted very flexibly in practice – was never checked for its current expediency, but raised to the supposedly untouchable myth. 

“As an EU member and participant in the EU’s common security and defence policy, Austria is already obliged to show solidarity. Given the current threat, there needs to be a debate without blinkers.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

Martin Senn, Professor of International relations at the University of Innsbruck and Lecturer at the Vienna School of International Studies, told The Local that he approves of the letter and that it’s time for Austria to have a discussion about defence.
 
Senn said: “It makes a very important point that the government should think hard about how Austria’s security can be maintained in the long term.
 
“Security and defence has always been a marginal issue in Austria, and it should change. In my view, it’s important for Austria to come to terms with the tensions between neutrality and solidarity in Europe. 
 
“For example, what would Austria do in the case that another EU country was attacked? This then leads to the question of what type of armed forces do we need.”

The authors of the letter called for the creation of an independent group of experts to lead a debate on the future of Austria’s security and defence policy, adding that the discussion should be open to all Austrians.

Could Austria’s neutrality be changed?

The short answer is yes, it’s possible for Austria to become a non-neutral country. But the reality is more complex.

From a Federal Government perspective, Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) and Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner (ÖVP) have all recently reiterated Austria’s commitment to neutrality.

Senn is also sceptical about Austria abandoning its neutral stance any time soon, despite concerns about security in Europe.

He said: “The threshold for abandoning neutrality is high – it would need a two thirds majority in parliament and the population is in favour of neutrality.

“Politicians are in a quagmire because the population has high esteem of neutrality and so political parties won’t invest political capital to change it.” 

READ ALSO: What would an embargo on Russian oil mean for Austria?

However, if a decision was ever made to change Austria’s neutral status, it would involve a similar process to adopting neutrality.

Senn said: “The current legal interpretation holds that other countries would have to be notified but they wouldn’t have any veto power.

“Our neutrality is not an international treaty, it was installed through a national legal act and other countries were notified. Abolishing neutrality would work in the same way.”

But altering Austria’s neutrality would come down to political and public support, of which there is very little right now.

A recent survey for Austria’s APA press agency revealed only 14 percent of Austrians were in favour of joining NATO and 52 percent believe neutrality protects Austria.

What is the current situation regarding military defence in Austria?

According to the defence policy of the Austrian Armed Forces, the primary objective of the military is the defence of Austria, its people and their livelihoods on the principles of a militia system (a reserve of militarily trained people). 

Austria is also a member of the EU which is covered by Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty – a clause that states all members must provide each other with aid and assistance in the event of armed aggression towards another member. 

Senn said: “Austria could participate in a mutual defence scenario, for example Austria could legally support Poland militarily if it was attacked.

“There is an article in the constitution that says Austria can participate in the common security and defence policy of Europe, which includes militarily.”

There is an exception to the Lisbon Treaty though (known as the Irish Clause) to allow neutral countries like Austria to opt out of providing military support in such a situation. 

Senn said: “Austria can remain neutral if it wants to, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a matter of political determination.”

Another aspect of Austria’s defence strategy is the country’s geographical location in Central Europe – surrounded by NATO member countries and neutral Switzerland.

Senn said: “There is no immediate conventional threat to Austria, but no country is an island and therefore we should think more about what we need to defend Austria and Europe as a whole.”

Austria’s current defence policy, which was published in 2014, states 55,000 soldiers are required to complete the objectives of the Armed Forces. This includes 12,500 soldiers listed in the ÖSS for disaster relief operations in Germany, 100 security experts and 1,100 soldiers posted on overseas missions.

A recent article in Der Standard by Veit Dengler about Austria’s neutrality said: “It is not clear what the mission and the tasks of the army are. 

“It is completely inadequately equipped for a serious defence situation like that in Ukraine. We are not mentally prepared either: we have no consensus that we are part of the alliance called the EU.”

Why is Austria not a member of NATO?

Austria’s long-standing neutrality goes back to the post-World War II years.

In 1955, when the last foreign troops left Austria, parliament adopted the constitutional law on the Neutrality of Austria, committing the country to permanent neutral status.

READ MORE: Why is Austria not a member of NATO?

The law cemented certain provisions from the Austria State Treaty signed by the government and representatives of the allied forces, which paved the way for the foreign armies to leave the country.

As per the Treaty, Austria can’t join a military alliance, allow the establishment of foreign military bases within its borders or participate in a war. However, Austria’s neutrality status was adapted after joining the EU to align with the country’s commitments to the bloc.

Austria has also actively participated in peacekeeping operations in war torn countries, particularly in the Balkans, as part of its commitment to engaged neutrality and cooperation with NATO through the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.

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