ASTRA Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health

Press statement 

“A pregnant situation” 

Research about compulsory abortion counselling in Hungary 

PATENT Association, July 2014 

In spring 2014, PATENT Association Hungary conducted a study about the practice of compulsory counselling, set by law as the precondition of obtaining abortion in Hungary. There are two counselling sessions in Hungary, of which the first has to be “in the interest of keeping the fetus”, including information on the “dangers of abortion” and its effects on later pregnancies. Following a minimum three-day waiting period, the second session is supposed to be only informative and administrative. Our study’s aim was to examine how the women attending the sessions were treated: were their personal freedom to decide over their bodies, were their autonomy and human dignity respected, what attitude they experienced on part of the counsellor, in what tone were they addressed, and what kind of information they received. We were looking to answer the question of whether women’s rights are violated during the compulsory sessions, whether it occurs that their dignity and feelings are violated or disregarded, and if so, in what forms, through what acts did this occur.

 

Throughout our qualitative research, six researchers interviewed 101 women upon exiting the counselling sessions, in 25 locations across the capital and the countryside. In 35 cases the respondents were over both the first and the second counselling sessions; in these cases we asked questions about both sessions. In the rest of the cases, respondents were in-between the two sessions, therefore we asked them only about the first occasion. The interview consisted of mixed-type questions, including open-ended and non-direct, as well as yes-or-no, direct or quickly decidable questions. 

Although the Law prescribes the list of elements to be mentioned throughout the counselling sessions, counsellors have freedom to pick the emphasis and interpretation they please within the given topics. As the legal text is itself contradictory - it expects that counsellors pressure women towards keeping the fetus, but it also contains the clause to meanwhile respect the woman’s feelings and dignity - this puts counsellors in a rather difficult position. In the end, it depends on the counsellor’s individual decision whether she puts the emphasis on the pressure “in the interest of keeping the fetus”, or if she prefers to respect the woman’s dignity and feelings. In accordance with all this, our results show a wide variation regarding the information mentioned in the sessions, the quantity and quality of information, as well as the attitude of the counsellors towards the women. 

13% of the 101 respondents in our sample experienced some kind of a violation (manipulation, blaming, emotional pressuring) during the compulsory counselling sessions. Furthermore, roughly 50% did not get the legally prescribed amount and quality of information. In several cases the reason for this was that the respondent was aware of, or asked not to discuss some topics. Given that many women find offensive attitudes warranted, or even deserved in this situation, and therefore they do not notice violations, much less recognize them as violations, and given that those women who were in an overly overwhelmed psychological state, with presumably worse experiences, were unlikely to stop to respond to our interviewers, it is probable that the ratio of offensive counselling sessions is higher than these results show. 

Based on our research and the general corresponding statistics on abortion and compulsory counselling, it appears that only in rare occasions do the sessions affect the woman’s choice, already made before she attended the first counselling. The blaming, manipulative, emotionally pressuring arguments and comments on part of the counsellors, however, make the sessions and the already difficult decision even more traumatic and hard to process for many women. Furthermore, the prescription of compulsory counselling in itself, and many times the way it is executed, questions women’s freedom to choose. 

Most commonly, attitudes violating or offending women’s dignity and feelings materialize in inadequate use of words (e.g. “killing the baby”, “your baby’s little heart is already beating”); inadequate visual stimuli (e.g. showing pictures of older fetuses and babies in the counselling or exhibiting such posters and materials in the waiting room); and declaration of subjective opinions as objective truths invalidating the woman’s decision (e.g. “twins are easy, they are always there for each other!”, “you are just the right age to be a mommy”, “if you really wanted to, you could solve it all to have this baby”, etc.). It also occurred that even in the second counselling session, the counsellor was still trying to pressure the woman to change her mind about her decision. Furthermore, the physical surroundings and logistical organization of the counselling locations are often problematic: waiting rooms are many times together with women with progressed pregnancies, or are next to spaces for mothers with newborns and small children. 

There is also good practice, of course: positive examples include the counsellor asking whether the woman wishes to hear about given topics (e.g. the legally prescribed information on adoption) and accepting if the woman refuses, or the counsellor being understanding and sympathetic. 

Following a press conference and -statement, the results of our study were widely displayed in the Hungarian media. This resulted in the problem of compulsory counselling becoming part of the public discourse, reaching a wide audience. We formulated several recommendations, including a focus on sexual education and accessible contraception instead of questioning women’s decisions. 

The full study has been published on PATENT’s website, and is to be translated to English.