How Dobbs Accelerated Europe’s Abortion Culture

ANALYSIS: The end of Roe v. Wade seems to have galvanized abortion advocates in the Old Continent, where a series of controversial moves were applied on the political stage.

French president Emmanuel Macron during the public ceremony of sealing the Constitutional Law on Voluntary Abortion of Pregnancy.
French president Emmanuel Macron during the public ceremony of sealing the Constitutional Law on Voluntary Abortion of Pregnancy. (photo: Antonin Albert / Shutterstock)

Has the end of Roe v. Wade in the United States led to a rout for pro-life movements in Europe? This is the trend that seems to be emerging two years after the emblematic decision of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, to invalidate the federal right to abortion.   

The chorus of indignant reactions from most European political leaders the day after the announcement, denouncing a dangerous infringement of women's rights, already foreshadowed a backlash on the Old Continent, where 95% of people of reproductive age live in countries that allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds. 

Calls for legislation to protect an allegedly “fundamental” right were quickly followed by action in most cases, leading to fears of a gradual erosion of freedom of conscience, in particular the conscience clause for medical staff.  

While some experts see these tensions as tangible proof that the abortion issue will never be normalized, American professor Hadley Arkes points to the failure of Western conservatives to inscribe the intrinsically immoral nature of abortion in the collective consciousness. 


Radicalization of Pro-Abortion Policies 

In its October 2023 report, the Center for Reproductive Rights welcomed the fact that the general trend in most European countries has been one of progress towards legalization of abortion and removal of barriers and restrictions.  

This state of affairs seems not to have been enough to pacify abortion advocates, who have turned Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health into a direct threat to a “right” that no ruling political party in Europe is questioning.   

In France, Emmanuel Macron’s government, which announced its intention to enshrine the right to abortion in constitutional marble as early as June 25, 2022, eventually won its case in March after a parliamentary battle lasting several months. The country thus became the first in the world, after Tito’s communist Yugoslavia in 1952, to make abortion a constitutional right.  

At the level of the European institutions, a first resolution had already been adopted by the European Parliament as early as June 9, 2022, in anticipation of Dobbs, which “strongly encouraged the U.S. government and/or other relevant U.S. authorities to remove all barriers to abortion services.” It also called on European Union member states to include the right to abortion in the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.  

A new resolution to this effect was adopted last April. Although it has no binding force, the EU having no competence to define health policy, which remains a matter for member states, this resolution had a strong symbolic scope, not least because it was adopted by the European Parliament with a clear majority, 336-163.  

It would appear that it was this same determination on the part of abortion movements that led to the defeat in the Polish elections of October 2023 of the conservative PiS party, which had restricted access to abortion to cases of rape and incest or danger to the mother in 2020.  

In fact, observers believe that the massive — and unprecedented — vote by women in favor of left-wing pro-abortion parties played a decisive role in the outcome of the vote. A bill authorizing abortion up to 12 weeks was introduced by the new left-wing coalition on its arrival in power and is due to be debated in Polish Parliament in the coming months. 

In 2023, Spain’s Constitutional Council approved Pedro Sanchez’s socialist government’s plan to further liberalize abortion, making it accessible in all public health-care centers and, from the age of 16, without the need for parental consent.  

This issue, which by its recurrence seems to have become a major stumbling block, was once again a subject of discussion at the G7 summit, held in Italy June 13-15. The international press reported tensions between France, Canada and the United States on the one hand and Italy on the other, with conservative Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni reportedly refusing to include a reference to the right to abortion in the G7’s final statement. Although Meloni denied any responsibility for the removal of the reference, which she said was unnecessary, as the right to abortion was already a given, President Macron stated it was “regrettable” that the word did not appear in the document’s final version. 


The End of Conscientious Objection?  

Beyond political controversies, one of the central questions posed by this new acceleration in the expansion of legal access to abortion in Europe is the future of the freedom of conscience of those who refuse this practice, foremost being medical staff.  

In the case of France, the freedom to have an abortion has acquired constitutional value and has become de facto superior to the doctors’ conscience clause, which has legal value only, as legal expert Nicolas Bauer pointed out in an interview with CNA. This same problem would extend to other European countries that might decide to follow in France’s footsteps. It is to be noted, moreover, that shortly after the vote became official, some of the French promoters of the constitutionalization of abortion called for a restriction of the conscience clause.  

At the European level, the right to conscientious objection guaranteed by Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but subject to “the national laws governing the exercise of this right,” would naturally clash with the right to abortion, should the 27 EU member states one day vote unanimously in favor of its inclusion. 

Poland, which has yet to adopt its government’s bill to expand abortion, passed a resolution restricting the conscience clause last May. This requires every hospital to have at least one doctor on site able to perform an abortion under the conditions laid down by law.  

This pressure on opponents of abortion by legal means also manifested itself in the arrests of pro-life activists outside abortion facilities in England and Ireland in 2023. They were accused of violating, by their mere presence, areas of free access to the sites newly ordered by local authorities. 


Concern Within the Church 

Europe’s ideological outburst in the wake of Dobbs has not gone unnoticed by the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, starting with Pope Francis himself, who recently voiced his concern at the spread of a “culture of death” in Europe during an audience with the bishops of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE).  

Following the European Parliament’s vote in favor of including abortion in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, in turn denounced a “significant cultural regression” on the Old Continent. 

While admitting that he was not surprised by the outcome of the vote, given the orientation of European institutions in recent years, the secretary-general of COMECE, Father Manuel Enrique Barrios Prieto, called on the Church, in order to overcome this political impasse, to tackle directly the problem of educating and forming consciences on the question of the sacredness of life. 


The Conservatives’ ‘Ideological Defeat’ 

Beyond the legal battles, it would seem that abortion opponents have above all lost the ideological and moral battle around this issue, with pro-choice policies being supported by an increasing proportion of the citizens of European countries. 

Indeed, while lawyer Gregor Puppinck, the director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), told the Register in 2022 that the European ruling class’ overreaction to Dobbs was an encouraging sign that abortion was never normalized, American professor Hadley Arkes — the man behind the 2002 Born-Alive Infant Protection Act — is less optimistic.  

In an interview with the Register on June 14, this Catholic convert and emblematic figure of the fight for life in the U.S. expressed alarm at the slippery slope on which the West has embarked in recent decades — and which Dobbs has done nothing to halt.  

Pointing out that the number of abortions performed in the U.S. has also soared since abortion was returned to states’ authority, he called into question a “morally empty jurisprudence” focused on whether abortion was constitutional, rather than on the intrinsically immoral nature of the practice. 

“The conservatives have done nothing to engage in the philosophical and moral battle and make people understand that we’re dealing with human lives, and the pro-life movement deserves so much better than a so-called conservative jurisprudence that avoids the main question that is moral in substance,” Arkes said.  

“This clumsy work by the conservatives in the West has made pro-life discourse inaudible today; it has become virtually impossible to publicly criticize abortion,” he added, in a reference to the U.S. presidential campaign that began without a clear pro-life candidate.   

This increased powerlessness on the part of American political leaders, who are usually more active in defending life than their European counterparts, is, in his view, unlikely to reverse the trend on the Old Continent. That makes the educational and evangelizing mission of the Church and its missionaries all the more imperative.