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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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POLITICS

Reader question: Can I vote in Austria’s presidential elections?

On October 9th, Austria will vote to elect a new president, but who can vote in these national elections?

Reader question: Can I vote in Austria's presidential elections?

Austria’s presidential election will take place on October 9th, with seven candidates vying to take over at the Hofburg – the official workplace of the country’s president.

According to opinion polls, the favourite to win is the current president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is running for reelection.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: Who are the seven candidates?

A presidential candidate must be an Austrian citizen, be eligible to vote in the National Assembly and be at least 35 years old on election day.

Members of ruling dynasties or families that reigned in the past are not eligible to run in the presidential election. This is to avoid a return to monarchy in Austria via the role of the Federal President.

Who can vote in these elections?

The only people allowed to vote in Austrian federal elections are Austrian citizens aged 16 or above.

That means foreigners – even those born and raised in Austria, are not entitled to choose a new president. Unless, of course, they take up Austrian citizenship (usually giving up their original citizenship).

Since Austria has a large proportion of foreigners in the population, many people will not be able to vote in these elections.

READ ALSO: ‘I pay taxes in Austria’: Anger as foreigners barred from Vienna council vote

In fact, some 18 percent of residents (or 1.4 million people) in Austria over the age of 16 do not have the right to vote because they are not citizens, with the highest concentration of ineligible people in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg.

In comparison, 20 years ago, Austria had just 580,000 people without the right to vote.

Statistics Austria data evaluated by the APA shows that around 30 percent of the voting-age population in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg are not entitled to vote. In Linz and Graz, it is about 25 percent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

However, there are some smaller communities in Austria where the number of people without the right to vote is even higher.

In Jungholz in Tyrol, 66 percent of the population are not eligible, followed by 51 percent in Mittelberg in Vorarlberg. Kittsee in Burgenland and Wolfsthal in Lower Austria also have high proportions of Slovakian residents who cannot vote.

Austrian citizenship

Currently, in Austria, if someone wants to take up citizenship via naturalisation, they must undergo an extensive and expensive process and fulfil specific criteria.

Generally, there needs to be at least ten years of lawful and uninterrupted residence in Austria. But there are exceptions for those with citizenship of an EU or EEA country, those born in Austria, or married to an Austrian, for example.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

The main hurdles, however, include having to give up any other citizenships, as Austria doesn’t allow for dual citizenship in naturalisation cases with few exceptions, and the payment of a high fee, which depends on the municipality, but could reach thousands of euros.

And though the topic of easing the requirements has come up several times in Austria, the country doesn’t seem any closer to changing its citizenship laws.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

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