Thursday afternoon, during his regular press conference, János Lázár announced the latest government decision. Two hospitals–the Budai Irgalmasrendi Kórház, managed by the Hungarian Catholic Church, and the Bethesda Gyermekkórház, maintained by the Hungarian Reformed Church–will receive a generous grant of 7.8 billion forints so they can offer obstetric services. In return, they will not perform abortions and will refuse to accept gratuities, which, as we all know, are steep. Obstetricians can become quite wealthy from money happy new parents pass to them under the table.
The immediate reaction in the liberal press was negative. Journalists remember only too well earlier attempts to restrict abortions. The sanctity of life issue is at the core of the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s ideology. During the debate on the constitution in 2010 KDNP politicians were adamant about the issue. Eventually the following sentence made its way into the final text of Orbán’s constitution: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; the life of the fetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.” Subsequently, KDNP tried several times to convince Viktor Orbán to follow the Polish example, which makes abortion illegal except in cases of rape, when the woman’s life is in jeopardy, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. The Polish government recently tried to enact a total ban on abortions, but it had to retreat in the face of huge demonstrations. Orbán knows that the introduction of a sweeping abortion law in Hungary would be political suicide.
Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, objected to the terms of the grants. Judit Zeller, who works on patients’ rights cases, took the position that although individual doctors may refuse to perform surgical interventions in pregnancy cases, institutions as such can’t. If the condition of the government’s financial assistance depends on the hospitals refusing to perform abortions, the arrangement between the hospitals and the government is illegal.
As is often the case in the chaos within the Orbán government, there was a discrepancy between Lázár’s statement and the official government text. In its announcement Magyar Közlöny, the official gazette of government edicts and laws, said not a word about the special understanding between the hospitals and the central government concerning the prohibition of abortions.
The two hospitals will actually share one new obstetric department, which will be housed in Bethesda. People familiar with the medical facilities in Budapest claim there is no need for an additional facility. They suspect that the arrangement is a kind of unholy alliance between the two so-called historic churches, on the one hand, and the Hungarian government, which is eager to have the churches’ full support, on the other.
KDNP, the “political arm of the Catholic Church,” has been unhappy ever since 2010 when it failed to have a total ban on abortions included in the new constitution. The party therefore periodically makes attempts to smuggle in restrictive laws. In 2012 there was a huge debate on the “abortion pill,” in which KDNP successfully led the opposition to its availability in Hungary. The World Health Organization approved the pill in 2005 and the Hungarian “college of gynecologists and obstetricians” also endorsed its use. But KDNP’s “expert” described the horrors that follow the procedure, which in his opinion was even more dangerous than the surgical technique. He also claimed that “WHO suggested the use of the abortion pill for overpopulated countries,” not for countries with a low birthrate like Hungary. As a result of KDNP’s fierce opposition, the pill is not available in Hungary to this day.
A year later, in 2013, KDNP introduced yet another bill to restrict women’s gynecological rights. This time is was Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the department of justice, who introduced the bill. KDNP wanted to put an end to voluntary sterilization. Prior to 2005 Hungarian laws had restricted voluntary sterilization. The Constitutional Court found them unconstitutional because they violated women’s rights. Therefore, after 2006 such operations could be freely performed at the patient’s expense. It was this liberal law that KDNP wanted to change in such a way that only those women who were over 40 years old and already had three children could be sterilized. This bill was never enacted into law.
Medián took a survey at that time on Hungarian attitudes toward the abortion issue, and it turned out that even supporters of Fidesz-KDNP didn’t back further legal restrictions. The poll showed that 72% of churchgoers thought that in cases of financial stress abortion was an acceptable alternative. The same group of people believed that the abortion pill that KDNP torpedoed a year before was an acceptable, maybe even preferable, method of birth control.
A year ago Index got hold of a study by a hobby demographer whose remedy for the low birthrate in Hungary is to forbid all abortions on childless women between the ages of 35 and 45. This hobby demographer has close ties to KDNP. In fact, his study was at least partially financed by KDNP’s Barankovics Foundation.
In brief, KDNP has been relentlessly trying to overturn the current law on abortion. Yet the top politicians of the party now claim that they had absolutely nothing to do with the deal between the two hospitals and the government. I doubt that this is the case. I can hardly imagine that Miklós Soltész (KDNP), the secretary for churches, minorities and civil affairs, had nothing to do with the 7.8 billion forints given to the two church-run hospitals.
This first step toward “abortion free hospitals” might seem innocuous. It simply reduces the number of hospitals where women can have abortions. Perhaps this way KDNP’s drive for a ban on abortions might be less noticeable, especially if the process takes several years. Népszava’s headline to its article on the subject read: “Did the future begin?” A lot of people think so.