Abortion in the Netherlands
Abortion was fully legalized in the Netherlands on November 1, 1984. Abortions are available until fetal viability, assumed to be at 24 weeks as specified in the Dutch Criminal Code. Because there is a 2-week margin of error, abortions are in practice carried out until week 22. Abortions can be carried out after 24 weeks if there are serious medical risks involved if the pregnancy continues.
Abortions can be carried out in hospitals or at specialized abortion clinics, and abortion services are free of charge for Dutch residents. However, there is a 5-day mandated waiting period from the first consultation, as specified in Article 3.1 of the Termination of Pregnancy Act. The proponents of the law argue it is to make sure that the decision is the woman’s own and that it is a well-considered option. All abortion-seeking women need a dated letter of referral from their general practitioner or another qualified doctor, confirming that she has taken five days to reflect on her decision. If she contacts an abortion clinic directly without going through her general practitioner, she does not need the referral, but must still wait five days. However, if she is less than 6 weeks pregnant, the five days of reflection are not necessary, and the abortion can be carried out immediately.
The Netherlands boasts one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, credited to having a liberal abortion law to begin with, but also equality between the sexes, comprehensive sexual education, and availability of long-term contraceptive options. Considering the Netherlands’ more liberal abortion law, it is considered a safe haven for women in countries with stricter abortion laws. For many years, abortion clinics in the Amsterdam area have served women from Poland, Malta, and other countries.
The Dutch Penal Code of 1886 outlawed abortion, except for when performed by a physician, based on medical indication. In 1886, that meant in case of threat to the pregnant woman’s life. However, the law was difficult to manage, as it was a requirement that the prosecution had to prove that the fetus was alive at the time of the abortion. As a response, section 251 was introduced as part of the Morality Acts in 1911, penalizing “deliberately treating a woman or having her undergo treatment, notifying or arousing expectations that by doing so the pregnancy can be terminated”. All abortions, except for when the continuation of the pregnancy endangered the woman’s life, were strictly banned. Abortion was a crime against life and public morality.
As the second wave of feminism swept across large parts of the world, the debate about abortion access also reached the Netherlands. A sharp shift after 1965 opened the floor for discussions about abortion, as family planning measures were introduced. The birth control pill became available in 1964. In the following years, women sought to terminate pregnancies in hospitals after meeting a committee of doctors. As capacity maxed and it was difficult to get a spot for abortion treatment, the first abortion clinics opened in 1971. During the 1970s, seven bills were proposed to alter the abortion law, but none were successful.
In May of 1981, as the Dutch legislature was unable to agree on a legalization of the abortion law, a new bill was passed. It was controversial, and barely passed in both chambers with swing votes. Effective November 1, 1984, abortion was legalized. It was to be considered a crime, except for when carried out by a hospital or specialized abortion clinic and the pregnant woman considers it an emergency.
In February 2022, the Dutch legislature voted over a proposition to eliminate the mandated five-day waiting period. A large majority of the members of parliament voted in favor of dismantling the current law. As this was passed in the lower house, the upper house of parliament must vote on the bill in order for it to become law. It is also expected that a bill that would allow general practitioners to prescribe abortion pills directly to the pregnant woman will pass in parliament later in 2022. This would eliminate the need for visits to hospitals and abortion clinics for many pregnant women who want to terminate the pregnancy as soon as possible.
Written by: Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
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