Opposition parties believed to be broadly in favour of removing abortion from penal code

 Bruges in Belgium. It remains a criminal and imprisonable offence to have an abortion outside the restrictions imposed by the state Photograph: Darrell Gulin/Getty Images

Belgian MPs are taking a major step towards the decriminalisation of abortion after a parliamentary majority emerged in favour of following France and Luxembourg in treating the procedure as a woman’s right.

The federal parliament decided on Wednesday to start debating the removal of abortion from the penal code after a large survey of the public indicated its approval, and the minister of public health for the francophone Walloon region of Belgium offered her support.

As in England and Wales, it remains a criminal and imprisonable offence in Belgium to have an abortion outside the restrictions imposed by the state. Abortion within 12 weeks of conception was legalised in 1990, and there is a mandatory six-day period of counselling and “reflection”.

At the time, the Belgian king, Baudouin, told the prime minister he could not sign the law without violating his conscience as a Catholic, and abdicated for a 24-hour period so the government could act in his absence.

There is believed to be a majority in the parliament among the opposition parties in favour of decriminalisation, but it will be up to the coalition government to provide time for vote on legislation. Olivier Maingain, the leader of the liberal Défi party, called on Wednesday for a vote before the summer recess in July.

Due to the current tight restrictions, about 500 women travel from Belgium to the Netherlands every year to have the procedure carried out.

Belgium has otherwise been one of the most forward-thinking of European states on reproductive health and anyone aged under 20 has access to free contraception.

In recent years, a series of proposals have been made by opposition parties in parliament to take abortion out of the penal code, so as to avoid stigmatising women who undergo the procedure. It has been repeatedly blocked from being put on the parliamentary agenda, until this week.

Wim Van de Voorde, from Sensoa, a sexual education charity, said: “Belgium has one of the lowest abortion rates but still one in five women will have an abortion at some point in their life. It is a part of life and a medical procedure. It is not something that belongs in a penal code.

“In Ireland, where there is a referendum this month, there have been hearings and debates about abortion. But that hasn’t happened in Belgium, until now.”

Abortion has been liberalised across Europe in recent years. Ireland will vote on 25 May on repealing the eighth amendment of the republic’s constitution, which gives the unborn an equal right to life as the mother and therefore prohibits abortion in almost all cases.

Abortion was taken out of Luxembourg’s penal code in 2014. François Hollande’s government changed the law in France in 2015 to explicitly permit abortion for “any woman who does not wish to continue a pregnancy”, rather than simply those in “distress”.

In 2017, the Labour MP Diana Johnson failed in her attempt to reform the 1967 Abortion Act to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/02/belgium-to-debate-removal-of-abortion-from-penal-code