Tag Archives: Miklós Soltész

The Hungarian government chips away at the abortion law

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.

February 10, 2017

Strasbourg verdict on disenfranchised churches: the Hungarian government dithers

The Hungarian government has had an awful lot of bad news lately coming from various institutions of the European Union. Yesterday I wrote about the veto by Euratom and the European Commission of certain parts of the Russian-Hungarian agreement concerning Rosatom’s supply of nuclear fuel for the two new reactors of the Paks power plant. Today I will look into an older decision of the European Court of Human Rights that the Hungarian government has yet to act on, despite a March 8 deadline. What I have in mind is the infamous law on churches.

The law that Zsolt Semjén called a masterpiece has had some rough sledding. The law stipulated that only churches approved by the Hungarian parliament could partake of the benefits churches usually enjoy in democratic countries. Smaller, less traditional churches or congregations, including some following reformed Judaism, were stripped of their church status. In February 2013 the Constitutional Court, which at that time wasn’t yet packed with Fidesz loyalists, found the law to be discriminative and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and to leave the objectionable law unaltered.

Since all remedies at home had been exhausted, sixteen small churches decided to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to seek justice. Nine churches were represented by TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, while Dániel Karsai represented another six. Csaba Tordai represented perhaps the most important church, which was most likely the victim of Viktor Orbán’s personal vendetta: the Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) led by Gábor Iványi, basically a Methodist church.

Dániel Karsai, who frequently appeared on ATV during 2013, was certain already in late May of that year that their case was so strong that the Hungarian government would suffer another setback in Strasbourg. It took a year, but in April 2014 the verdict was announced. It was in favor of the small churches. The Hungarian government and the churches will have to agree on a financial settlement. If they cannot reach an equitable arrangement, the Strasbourg court will decide on the amount of compensation these churches deserve for the financial loss they suffered as a result of being deprived of their church status. Moreover, the law on churches doesn’t conform to European law and hence must be changed.

It all started rather small

This church started off rather small, after all

Dániel Karsai, the lawyer for some of the churches, was elated. He expressed his hope that “after this great victory the first business of the new government will be to put in order the question of religious freedom.” Well, a year went by and nothing happened. No settlement was reached. Instead of writing a new law, the government decided to appeal the case. I should note that it was the Ministry of Justice and Administration under the leadership of Tibor Navracsics that handled the case in Strasbourg on behalf of the Hungarian government. The same Navracsics who today is desperately trying to distance himself from the Orbán administration and attempting to portray himself as a moderate liberal in his new capacity as a member of the European Commission.

Another five months went by. On September 9, 2014, the Court of Human Rights rejected the appeal of the Hungarian government. The law would have to be changed and the churches in question compensated. The court gave the Hungarian government six months, until March 8, to settle the question of compensation. Well, I just read in Magyar Nemzet that “the government heeds the Strasbourg verdict but does not want to be overhasty.” What an understatement. The government wants to be fair, but at the same time “it doesn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money” and the sum in question is rather large. According to some estimates, the churches claimed damages amounting to about 20 billion forints. The Magyar Nemzet article indicated that the government finds some of the claims unacceptable. On the other hand, Csaba Tordai, the lawyer for Gábor Iványi’s Methodist church, is optimistic that there will be an agreement within a few weeks. The Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) originally asked for 1.4 billion forints, but that was in 2012. I assume the current claim is at least double that amount.

As far as the law itself is concerned, the government is again in no hurry. Dániel Karsai might have hoped that the new government would immediately take care of the problem, but today Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of social policy in the ministry of human resources, announced that the government is not planning to write a new law because, after all, they already revised the original law once, in 2013. So, there will be only changes in certain points. And, he continued,”we must guard those values [in the law] that assist the spiritual work of the churches in all facets of their activities,” whatever that means. I have the feeling that this is not the end of the story.

Friendly advice: “Leave culture alone! Not your thing”

It was unexpected, but Imre Kerényi’s notion of national culture is even too much for the saner members of the Hungarian right. Both Magyar Nemzet and Heti Válasz consider his activities outright injurious to the government and the reputation of Fidesz. Not just because of what he had to say about the repertoire of the National Theater but because of his untenable views on “national culture.” The piece by Bálint Ablonczy in Heti Válasz goes even further. He pretty well tells Fidesz and the government “to get off culture.” It is not their thing.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ablonczy. Viktor Orbán should stick with football. Culture is not his forte; if it were, he surely would not have picked Kerényi as his “cultural commissar.”

To backtrack a bit. The first reaction to Kerényi’s homophobic words came from members of the Hungarian theater world. János Kulka, a former member of the National Theater who agreed to play a part in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull next season when Attila Vidnyánszky will be the director of the theater, led the charge. He wrote a sharply worded letter after he learned that Vidnyánszky had been present when Kerényi delivered his outrageous opinions about the repertoire of the theater under the directorship of Róbert Alföldi. The president of the University of Performing Arts followed suit. Then came the president of the Association of Theaters. And finally Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) demanded an explanation from Viktor Orbán. She is expecting an answer in about two weeks.

Vidnyánszky, who is apparently a talented director, in order to get the job as head of the National Theater cast himself as an ideologically committed man, a man he thought this Christian, national regime would find desirable. Lately he has been wearing a white shirt and black vest, a kind of Hungarian folk costume or a more modern version of it, the uniform of the Hungarian Guard. He also announced that the new theater building is a sacred site and that he will have to find a way to consecrate it. People have been shaking their heads at the transformation of the man.

Although it seemed from the video of the encounter that Vidnyánszky considered Kerényi’s reference to faggots too much, he said nothing on the spot. Moreover, a day after the video became public he repeated on one of the commercial television stations that he also thinks that there were too many plays with homosexual themes in the National Theater’s repertoire. I did find one, the 1993 play of Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. In fact, the play will open this weekend and will continue its run throughout June.

But then something happened. The very next day, Vidnyánszky suddenly apologized for not speaking up when he heard Kerényi’s homophobic remarks.

It is possible that Kerényi may be removed from his position. Or at least there are signs that someone may have convinced Viktor Orbán that Imre Kerényi is a burden. A few hours after Vidnyánszky’s apology an incredible statement entitled “Nine sentences about one Kerényi” appeared in Magyar Nemzet written by the editor-in-chief, Gábor Élő. He talked about the excrement that left Kerényi’s mouth that was spattered all over the national heroes. For a Christian and a nationalist (nemzeti) his behavior is especially disgusting. What he said is unacceptable to anyone who subscribes to the basic principles of human dignity.

As a media outlet from the other side of the political spectrum said, if an editorial like that can appear in Magyar Nemzet it means that Kerényi no longer enjoys the protection of Viktor Orbán.

But let’s move on to perhaps the most interesting article that appeared in the right-wing media, Bálint Ablonczy’s “The case of the lemony banana with orange which is actually a peach.” This title will need a bit of an explanation. “Banana” is used in Hungarian conversations for a case which may end in a disaster of sorts. Something someone can slip and fall on. “Orange” naturally is the symbol of Fidesz. Well, the “peach” is something new. Another atrocity the Hungarian government came up with. This time Tibor Navracsics’s Ministry of Public Administration and Justice is the culprit. They gave their blessing to a theme song for the Day of National Togetherness, June 4, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.

But before Ablonczy gets to the Song of National Togetherness he expresses his total rejection of any kind of “national culture.” There is good and bad art, good and bad literature. He pretty well admits that on the right there are not too many first-rate artists, but the couple he can think of will be discredited by Kerényi and his ilk.

Dancing under the tree /Flickr

Dancing under the tree /Flickr

The Song of National Togetherness, according to Ablonczy, is “horror itself  … which after three years one can say unfortunately manifests the government’s utter confusion, its total misunderstanding of what culture is all about.” Here are a few lines from the “masterpiece.” “I dreamed of a peach tree under which everybody dances / I stood in a large circle with you, in the soft grass on a dewy field / Our hands touch, the soles of our feet step on each other / The light of happiness burns in our eyes./ Join the circle! / Dance as your blood dictates, feel the heart of the earth beating with you because we are all in one together.”

I guess I don’t have to point out how stupid and confused these lyrics are. I especially like the line about the soles of our feet stepping on each other. And then, of course, there’s the music. Ablonczy suggests that the government “leave that culture thing alone.”

Yes, there are signs that certain people even on the right, especially those with some artistic sensitivity, are starting to realize that this government, in addition to all its other sins, is becoming a laughingstock.

And speaking of laughingstocks, here is another brilliant government idea. Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of social policy in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources, decided that young men and women have neither the time nor the opportunity to find spouses. The government ought to assist them in their quest. And so Soltész, a Christian Democrat who found his wife at a Catholic church function, decided that the ministry should organize “mixers.” In Budapest and in larger cities young adults can attend these events, called “Are you free for a dance? The first step toward each other.” They’re sure to be a roaring success.