The Unexpected Solution to Europe's Demographic Crisis - Promoting Life and Family

Europe is caught in the icy grip of a demographic winter. Stemming from high abortion rates, low birth rates, and a culture that generally eschews the traditional family, the impact of population shrinkage – coupled with an aging European society – will have a dramatic and negative impact on every aspect of European life. Faced with the failure of current polices, several countries are turning to a surprising solution: pro-life and pro-family values.

The current demographic crisis in Europe is in essence the result of a broader cultural and economic crisis. As the European Union developed, the ideas of “ethical relativism” and materialism continued to grow, and for Europeans, a continued focus on individual freedom of choice and economic rationality led many of them to seek personal fulfilment rather than creating a traditional family and having children. This cultural shift is directly related to the current demographic depression Europe is faced with today.

What is of interest, however, is not the severity of this demographic situation but the recent responses of several European countries--particularly Eastern European countries suffering the greatest. Hoping to reverse these demographic trends before it becomes too late, these countries are recognizing that the traditional family unit and a culture that supports life is essential to the maintenance of a healthy population.

This is very unexpected, however, because for many years in Europe, a pro-family, pro-life policy was never envisaged; in fact, it was taboo. For the longest time, immigration was viewed as the only viable answer to Europe’s demographic crisis. As a 2010 Resolution for the Council of Europe makes clear, “Immigration is the principal reason for positive population growth in several European countries and immigration needs are projected to grow.” However, this demographic debacle can not be solved by immigration alone. By 2025, the EU needs over 150 million immigrants just to preserve current population levels, and faced with the reality that there simply is no immigration to Eastern Europe, the region is now looking to other solutions to solve this problem.

A recently adopted Resolution by the Council of Europe “Investing in family cohesion as a development factor in times of crisis” states that,
“The Parliamentary Assembly recognises the force that the family represents in meeting life’s challenges and considers that the family unit is a fundamental element to aid in the economic recovery, especially during times of adversity and change.”
A Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation calls for member States to “support regional and local policies to strengthen public services in order to bring about a truly family-friendly society and to develop intergenerational relationships within families,” thus recognizing the fundamental value of the family unit.

Eastern European countries like Hungary, for example, have also endorsed promoting the fundamental family unit. Hungary has taken a particularly bold approach by embracing pro-family and pro-life values specifically within the text of its recently-ratified Constitution. The new Constitution highlights the values of family, religion, life, dignity, and states that all citizens have a right to life and human dignity. “Human dignity is inviolable,” the Constitution states. “Everyone has the right to life and human dignity; the life of a fetus will be protected from conception.” The new Constitution also states that “Hungary protects the institution of marriage between man and woman, a matrimonial relationship voluntarily established, as well as the family as the basis for the survival of the nation. Hungary supports child-bearing.”

Furthermore, with the goal of making the process of adoption easier and in the spirit of new Constitution, the Hungarian government launched a daring “anti-abortion” media campaign in May 2011. The posters, placed on Budapest public transport vehicles and in stops, encouraged women to offer their children for adoption instead of choosing abortion. The advertisements featuring an image of a fetus read: “I understand if you’re not ready for me yet, but give me up for adoption instead – PLEASE LET ME LIVE!”

Despite the support for this campaign – and the victory it represents for pro-family and pro-life values – this message, however, was not met without opposition. On June 8th, Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, said in the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the recent anti-abortion campaign adopted in Hungary did not comply with the rules of the European Union's Progress Programme, which supplied funds for the campaign. In a stifling blow to the effort, the EU called on Hungary to stop the campaign and remove all of the posters printed. Reding warned that failure to comply with this request would result in “financial consequences” for Hungary – a painful reminder of the current value system in Europe.

In Russia there are signs that the government is re-evaluating its stance on the traditional family unit. Russia has long been the epicenter of the demographic crisis in Europe. According to a 2010 census, Russia’s population dropped from 145 million in 2002 to 143 million today, and despite government efforts to reverse the decline in population, the death rate continues to exceed the country’s birth rate. In addition to dismal birth and morality rates, Russia suffers from one of the world's highest abortion rates. This astronomical rate has become a serious concern for the government as it fights to stave off a dramatic population decline.

Abortion in Russia is freely available during the first twelve weeks of gestation, as well as at any point during the pregnancy in cases involving a risk to the life or health of the mother or severe fetal abnormalities. Moreover, abortion is legal up to the twenty second week of pregnancy on certain social grounds, including imprisonment, rape, or spousal disability or death. Abortion is only considered illegal if performed by someone without the proper qualifications.

Taking serious steps to tackle these issues head-on, Russia's Orthodox Church and conservative lawmakers are working in concert with doctors, sociologists, and economists to draft legislation aimed at reducing Russia’s one million plus abortions annually. The proposed bill limits the free “on demand” abortions at government-run clinics and require prescriptions for the “morning-after” pill. It also requires married women seeking an abortion to acquire their husband’s permission, and for teenage girls to obtain consent from their parents. In addition, the bill requires a mandatory waiting period of forty eight hours to one week for abortions—depending on the length of pregnancy. For women seeking to have an abortion, they would read and sign a statement detailing the possible negative consequences that may result, including “the onset of infertility.” The bill requires women six weeks pregnant or more to view their embryo or fetus on ultrasound, hear its heartbeat, and engage in counseling.

Orthodox Church spokesman Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations, told a committee of bill drafters, “I hope that very soon we will live in a Russia without abortions.” Echoing this sentiment, Hieromonk Dimitry Pershin, head of the Information and Publishing Directorate of the Synodal Youth Department, advocated prioritizing the care of pregnant women. It should become “the main idea of today’s Russia,” he said. Those involved hope an improved version of the bill will be considered in the parliament in the beginning of June.

Through these efforts Russian legislators are not attempting to rise above their European counterparts, because access to abortion still remains. Nevertheless, they are hoping to bring Russian law up to a standard on par with other member States. For instance, in Belgium women are required to have six days of counseling prior to an abortion and must check in with a doctor to monitor their health in the weeks after the procedure. In Finland, women seeking abortions are provided with information detailing the significant effects of the procedure. Also, abortions are only performed in hospitals, and it is illegal to perform abortions in clinics. Austria and Cyprus do not provide routine abortion procedures in state hospitals, and abortions are not paid for by the government health system. In Denmark and Poland, written parental consent is required if the woman seeking an abortion is a minor.

Russia’s proposed legislation also complies with the European Court of Human Right’s jurisprudence. In the case R.R. v. Poland, the court recognized the broad European consensus on the legitimacy of abortion; however, it did not hold that member States lack authority to control the procedural aspects of abortions. The court noted, “[A] broad margin of appreciation is accorded to the State as regards the circumstances in which an abortion will be permitted in a State.” (§ 187) It is important to note that the Court recognized that member States have the authority to control the procedural aspects of abortions, and in line with the Court’s precedent, the proposed Russian law does just that. Furthermore, as the Court recognised in A.B.C. v. Ireland, there is not a human right to abortion. The Court unambiguously made clear that "Article 8 cannot, accordingly, be interpreted as conferring a right to abortion”. (§ 214)

Today Europe, and much of the world for that matter, faces a demographic crisis that requires a remedy far beyond additional government programs. What is needed, rather, is a dramatic shift in culture – a shift from a culture that has stripped the family from its place of honor to one that places true value on life and family. Increasingly the answer becomes clear: a Christian-inspired culture—one that esteems the covenant of marriage and the sanctity of life—must be embraced if Europe is to experience any lasting positive change to its fragile demographic situation.

[Thanks to guest blogger Anna Ernest, Regent Law J.D. Candidate 2013, current Family Law student, and Russian-American citizen, for this post.]

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