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Slovakia/Czech Republic: Abortion Back On Political Agenda

Abortion is back on the political agenda in the two Central European countries that once made up Czechoslovakia. In Slovakia, politicians are embroiled in a row over whether to anchor in law the right to abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy. It's pitting governing parties against each other and prompting fears it could lead to the collapse of the ruling coalition. But in the Czech Republic, an attempt to criminalize abortion has been roundly dismissed as the work of a few isolated traditionalists.

Prague, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One party considers it repulsive, another says it's a woman's right to choose.

Abortion is a divisive issue in many countries. The problem in Slovakia's case is that both sides are in the same ruling coalition -- and one of the parties is trying to push pro-abortion legislation through parliament with the help of the opposition.

The row between the Christian Democrats and the liberal ANO party has become so heated President Rudolf Schuster says he fears it could lead to the collapse of the ruling coalition.

"It's clear that for three of the four coalition partners it's totally unacceptable for one to push through a law with the support of the opposition," Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said after coalition talks yesterday. "That became very clear today. The governing coalition is a place where it's necessary to look for agreements and compromises."

Slovakia currently allows abortion up to 12 weeks, or 24 weeks if the fetus is genetically malformed.

The Christian Democrats are challenging those later-term abortions in the constitutional court, and a ruling is expected soon.

Meanwhile, ANO is trying to push through an amendment that would anchor in law a woman's right to later-term abortions in case of genetic malformation. A final vote is expected next week.

It's led to a standoff between the two parties. The Christian Democrats say ANO should withdraw its amendment. ANO leader Pavol Rusko says the Christian Democrats should keep their religious beliefs to themselves -- or leave the coalition.

"We don't see the slightest reason why politicians should tell women what to do. Today we are continuing the trend, the decision, whereby ANO's leadership has unanimously confirmed that it will not recommend its MPs withdraw this amendment. On the contrary, we recommend they vote in favor of it," Rusko said.

It's not just politicians who are getting heated about abortion. The issue is polarizing society as a whole, says Erika Kvapilova, who heads Bratislava's International Center for Family Studies.

"I think it has begun to seriously polarize society because it's a very sensitive issue that concerns individuals' personal integrity. You can see proof of this in the fact that women's organizations that in the past have not cooperated very well have now united over this issue and begun a petition to support the law proposed by ANO," Kvapilova said.

Whatever the outcome, the issue is unlikely to fade away in a country with a strong Catholic tradition. But Kvapilova says there's no reason why it should require a radical change in the law. The wider availability of contraception has helped cut the number of abortions by nearly two-thirds since communism collapsed in 1989.

"In Slovakia, apart from conservative parties' ideological or political reasons, there's no objective reason why this issue should require a radical solution, because the number of abortions has dramatically dropped in the last 10 years. So I firmly believe that [a ban] won't happen and that Slovakia won't become one of the countries that instead of moving forward goes back into the Middle Ages," Kvapilova said.

A return to the Middle Ages -- that's what a group of deputies in the neighboring Czech Republic wants, according to their critics.

The three deputies say they plan to introduce a bill soon that would ban abortion and hand down jail sentences for doctors who perform them.

Abortion is currently available on demand up to 12 weeks and later under certain conditions.

As in Slovakia, the Czech Republic has seen a dramatic drop in recent years in the number of abortions. But Petr Pleva, one of the bill's co-sponsors, says that's not enough.

"Protection of the unborn child is not sufficient. In the [country's] declaration of rights and freedoms it says that human life is worthy of protection also before birth. This has been disregarded up to now," Pleva said.

Doctors have reacted to the proposal with dismay. They say it would be a step backwards, and that women would end up going to clinics abroad or even resorting to illegal abortions.

But unlike in Slovakia, Pleva's bill is unlikely to cause any political tremors. It's just not the sort of issue that stirs much passion in the Czech Republic, where tolerance of abortion is more widespread.

Pleva says he's had lots of supportive letters, but he admits his bill has little chance of success. Still, co-sponsor Jiri Karas says it's important to get a real debate on the issue going.

"I would consider it a success if it went to a second reading. I think that will happen. But even if it doesn't, then just the discussion we've prompted by proposing this law, I think this is important and fulfills its goal so that the public realizes that abortion isn't about some cluster of cells, it really is about the killing of human beings," Karas said.

The Czech deputies plan to present their bill after this weekend's referendum on EU membership.

(RFE/RL's Slovak Service contributed to this report.)