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Last Updated: Friday, 6 January 2006, 16:50 GMT
Slovak abortion move worries EU
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict: Maintaining a tough stance on abortion
An attempt by the Vatican to reduce the number of abortions in Slovakia has raised concerns in the European Union about the loss of rights for women.

A draft treaty between Slovakia and the Holy See would allow hospital staff to refuse to do abortions or fertility treatment on religious grounds.

A panel of EU lawyers says this could restrict the rights of those who want them in such a firmly Catholic nation.

Pope Benedict XVI has vowed to take a tough line on issues such as abortion.

The draft treaty, drawn up in 2003, says it is based on "recognising the freedom of conscience in the protection and promotion of values intrinsic to the meaning of human life".

Slovakia is said to be 70% Catholic but abortion is legal up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

Under the draft agreement, the Slovak Republic "undertakes not to impose an obligation on the hospitals and healthcare facilities founded by the Catholic Church... to perform artificial abortions or assisted fertilisations".

Far-reaching deal

But Professor Olivier De Schutter, the head of the panel of lawyers from the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights, says the articles relating to religious conscientious objection raise the most concern.

It is neither right nor just for a doctor-gynaecologist, who is for example a supporter of the culture of life, to be forced to perform an abortion
Richard Fides
Slovakia justice ministry spokesman

He said it was "far-reaching, considering a very large majority of healthcare providers in Slovakia are Catholics and might exercise their right to conscientious objection".

He said the treaty did not oblige medical staff in such cases to refer the person seeking advice to another healthcare provider.

Human rights bodies have repeatedly said that when abortion is legal in a country, access to abortion must be provided to all without discrimination.

"The right to religious conscientious objection may be and should be respected, but with safeguards that make it possible for women to seek legal abortion," Professor de Schutter told the BBC's Europe Today programme. "This is the problem the draft text may be posing."

Richard Fides, a spokesman for Slovakia's justice minister, rejected claims in some European media that the document was basically an abortion agreement.

"That is sheer nonsense," he told the Slovak commercial television station TA3.

"The objective of the agreement is to ensure that every individual can apply their right to the objection of conscience. It is neither right nor just for a doctor-gynaecologist, who is for example a supporter of the culture of life, to be forced to perform an abortion."

Holy agreements

But Martin Buzinger, Slovakia's representative on the legal panel, argued that "the agreement stipulates a very broad right to the objection of conscience, without ensuring at the same time that this right is not abused."

The Holy See has similar treaties - or concordats - in place with other member states, including Italy, Latvia and Portugal, but clauses on religious conscientious objections only relate to exemptions from military service.

The draft treaty is yet to be signed. If it is, it will have the status of an international treaty, as the Vatican is a sovereign state.

Professor de Schutter says any political response to the legal panel's report on the draft treaty will be down to the European Commission and parliament.


SEE ALSO:
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Pope Benedict holds first synod
02 Oct 05 |  Europe
Ailing Pope ends Slovak visit
14 Sep 03 |  Europe
Profile: Pope Benedict XVI
19 Apr 05 |  Europe
Country profile: Slovakia
11 Dec 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Vatican
12 Oct 05 |  Country profiles


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