Abortions are legal in Hungary but humiliating treatment and waiting lists prompt women to terminate their pregnancy outside of the country, women and experts told Euronews. Their main destination is Austria.
“I was sure I didn’t want to go through this procedure in Hungary,” Adri, 32, who asked to be identified only by her first name, says. She lives in an agglomeration of Budapest, works as a life coachand raises her son alone. She got pregnant again, two years ago, and decided to get an abortion.
Surgical abortions are legal until the 12th week in Hungary but women are required to attend two mandatory meetings with a state service. The first one is to inform them of other opportunities, including adoption, Réka Lebedi, a lawyer at Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), a human rights NGO, explained. The second’s purpose is to inform them of the dangers of the surgery.
According to Lebedi, two problems arise with these consultations: “These family protection services are incredibly busy,” she said, which can lead to women running out of time. “And through our partners, we know that the intonation at these counsellings can be degrading towards the women.”
Adri, who, in her own words, experienced systematic abuse during her divorce “didn’t want to expose (herself) to further abuse.” So she booked herself into an Austrian clinic a friend recommended.
Ten to 15 women every week
“There is no law in Hungary that would clearly ban travelling for (an abortion),” Lebedi said.
Christian Fiala, a gynaecologist at the Gynmed clinic in Vienna, says the facility administers abortions to ten to 15 Hungarian women every week. Gynmed is only one of the multiple clinics that pop up on the first page of a Google search. A similar number of women attend Women and Health, another clinic, Alexandra Kovács, a customer service representative told Euronews.
Women and Health has a website in Hungarian, Russian and Polish too. Kovács, a German-Hungarian currently living in Vienna, attends to Hungarian clients and has spoken to hundreds of women, sometimes three a day.
“Many choose us instantly because they don’t even want to go through (the Hungarian system),” she said. That is despite the price.
In these clinics, the cost of an abortion is between €500-600, excluding travel, half Hungary’s average monthly pay. Abortions in Hungary cost €100.
The slow curbing of rights
Over the past decade, multiple laws have been passed that dampen access to abortion in Hungary.
The constitution was amended in 2012 with a paragraph according to which “the foetal life has to be protected from the conception”, which has been used to undermine women’s rights.
Last September, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalist Fidesz party, curbed abortion rights further with a “heartbeat law” requiring women to listen to a pulse generated by the ultrasound monitor, misleadingly dubbed the foetal heartbeat, before making the decision to abort.
Still, the number of abortions administered since September has risen by up to 15% in some areas, reports say.
According to Fiala, the “highly unethical” practice of making the woman listen to the heartbeat is nothing new despite having been enshrined in law last year.
“For many years, I have been infuriated by the stories of women who told me their doctors made them listen to this so-called heartbeat,” the Vienna-based doctors told Euronews.
Emily, a Budapest-based professional who asked to remain anonymous, was 24 when she got an abortion, just a few days before the Hungarian parliament passed the controversial law.
She discovered her pregnancy in its 5th week. The doctor at a private clinic told her to come back in 2 weeks and listen to the heartbeat, Emily says. “She didn’t even ask if it was planned.”
Calling family protection services, she was told she would have to wait over a month for the abortion due to the long waiting list. So she decided to opt for a clinic in Vienna, that she found in a Google search.
Emily, like Adri, decided for medical abortion, legal in Austria until the 9th week, and administered in most European countries since the early 2000s.
In Hungary, this practice has been illegal since 2012. Only surgical abortions are allowed, despite the severe lack of doctors in the country, which results in hospital wings, including maternity units, shutting down around the country and long waiting lists.
This, Fiala said, was “a political decision.”
“All Western European countries think it’s a very good and safe treatment. But (Viktor Orbán) wants to force women to put as many children in the world as possible,” he said.
The abortion system also affects refugees living in Hungary, according to a recent report by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The report by the global advocacy organisation highlights that many Ukrainian women who fled the war and settled in Hungary or Poland have no choice but to “travel back to Ukraine for abortion care” so that they can order “abortion medication online from telemedicine services”. Otherwise, they have to travel to other European countries to seek care.
In Poland, the ruling conservative populist Law and Justice party (PiS)’s anti-abortion measures, implemented in early 2021, banned terminations even in cases of pregnancies with foetal defects. This de-facto ban on abortions sparked mass protests around Poland and Europe.
“Hungary’s legal abortion regulations are fine compared to (that). At least on paper. But the way they are implemented in practice is completely wrong,” Krisztina Les, a social worker at Patent, a Hungarian women’s rights organisation, told Euronews.
Based in Budapest, Patent helps 35-40 Ukrainian women per month in accessing abortion and other sexual and reproductive health-related services, Les says.
“Compared to Western Europe, the situation in Hungary is troublesome,” Les says. If they could, they would stop the practice of obligatory consultation but they are wary of asking for anything.
“Due to the ongoing communication of the current government, we can only imagine the laws tightening.”