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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

As women’s reproductive rights are on the verge of being drastically eroded in the United States, Switzerland is witnessing the launch of two parallel popular initiatives seeking to restrict access to abortion here, writes Clare O'Dea.

Pro-life activists in Paris, France. Anti-abortion activists are pushing for tighter reproductive health rules in Switzerland via a referendum. Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP
Pro-life activists in Paris, France. Anti-abortion activists are pushing for tighter reproductive health rules in Switzerland via a referendum. Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

This is pure posturing by anti-abortion activists. It is obvious they can’t win the popular vote – the last time there was a vote on abortion in 2014, 80 per cent voted to leave the current regime unchanged – but Swiss campaigners still want to remind the public of their dissent. 

If they hurt women along the way, perhaps that’s acceptable collateral damage for them. Or perhaps that’s the whole point. The initiatives were launched together in December 2021 and the signature gathering deadline is in June 2023.   

All these campaigners achieve by dragging abortion onto the public agenda is piling additional stress and guilt on women who are going through a personal, in some cases heartbreaking, healthcare dilemma. Perhaps the rationale is that this extra pressure would have a deterrent effect. 

Switzerland was one of the first European countries to legislate for abortion in 1937, allowing abortion when the woman’s health was in danger. The cantons were free to decide how strictly to interpret the law and this led to a patchwork of abortion services across the country. 

Women ended up needing to travel inside the country to access abortion right up to 2002 when voters accepted the new abortion law allowing unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The law set conditions for abortions after this point. 

Reader question: Is abortion legal in Switzerland?

The first of the two initiatives is the ‘Save viable babies’ campaign to stop late-term abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger. This would apply to pregnancies from 22 weeks gestation where the foetus could potentially survive outside the womb with medical support. 

The second one is the blandly named ‘Sleep on it’ initiative, seeking to impose a one-day waiting period before allowing women and girls to access abortion treatment. Both sets of signatures are being collected together “for synergy reasons”. 

Three Swiss People’s Party (SVP) parliamentarians are behind the campaigns, including two women, Andrea Geissbühler and Yvette Estermann. They got nowhere in parliament with similar proposals which is why they are taking them to the people. No political party supports either initiative. 

Of the total of some 11,000 pregnancy terminations performed in Switzerland each year, approximately 95 per cent are carried out by the 12th week in accordance with the so-called time-limit regulations. 

Only a very small proportion of all terminations take place at an advanced stage of pregnancy. Some 150 terminations per year are performed after the 17th week of pregnancy. The ‘Save viable babies’ campaign is targeting pregnancies terminated from 22 weeks gestation onwards. There are an estimated 40 such cases per year. 

Just to be clear, the campaign wants the whole country to vote on the fate of 40 women per year going through a terrible personal crisis along with their distressed families. 

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The Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics published an opinion on the practice of late termination of pregnancy in 2018. Here’s what they had to say about these 40 cases annually. 

“The reasons and circumstances underlying advanced pregnancy termination are many and varied. Almost always, the women concerned find themselves in a situation beyond their control, posing a moral dilemma. The need for a decision, and the consequences thereof, can have a lasting impact on the women and their families. Accordingly, the primary ethical principle is that all options need to be jointly considered, with empathetic and careful support being provided for the people concerned.”

Those options include what is called palliative birth for babies with serious conditions who will die at birth or shortly afterwards. 

Guess what, collecting signatures for 18 months for a popular initiative banning late term abortions is the opposite of empathetic support. It exacerbates the suffering involved. But this is a mindset where nothing is more important than the life of the foetus, least of all the parents’ suffering. 

The number of abortions carried out in advanced pregnancy has remained virtually unchanged over the last ten years. Forty out of 11,000 is not very many, but the fact that these situations arise every year represents a sad fact of life. 

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Meanwhile the ‘Sleep on it’ initiative seeks to introduce a one-day wait between contacting a doctor and receiving the treatment. In three-quarters of cases this means a prescription for abortion pills. 

The one-day wait seems like a spurious and hollow demand. It is normal to think before you go to the doctor for any procedure. I have no doubt that when a woman asks a doctor for an abortion, she has already thought about it – for days if not weeks. She doesn’t need to go through an extra sleepless night to satisfy anyone.   

We know that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is either to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies – through information and services – or to significantly improve the material situation of women, for example income, housing, safety or job security. These factors already contribute to Switzerland’s low abortion rate

But the anti-abortion activists famously concentrate on the least effective tool – banning abortion or making access difficult. 

As an Irish citizen born in the 1970s, I came of age in a country that enshrined the right to life of the unborn in the constitution in 1983, which is what the ‘Save viable babies’ initiative seeks to do. That constitutional ban took a terrible toll on Irish women and girls for 35 years until it was repealed.  

This constitutional ban affected not only abortion services but maternal care in Ireland, with unnecessary suffering and risks imposed on miscarrying women by doctors afraid of breaking the law, as is now being seen in Poland.  

What we know about Swiss abortion is that it is safe, legal and rare. In an imperfect world, this is as good as it gets, no matter what the purists say.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who’s to blame?

There is a perception in Switzerland that Swiss natives and foreigners just don't really get on. Clare O'Dea looks at why there might be a lack of chemistry and where the blame may lie.

OPINION: If foreigners think the Swiss are unfriendly who's to blame?

I was once on a bus in Geneva, suffering from morning sickness on that particular day, on my way out to Cern for an interview. A man sitting across from me started to talk. Under the guise of striking up a friendly conversation, he kept asking me questions about myself. ‘Where do you live? Where are you going? Are you a student?’

It doesn’t happen to me anymore but young women will recognise this scenario. I felt cornered and it got the point where I had to tell him to stop quizzing me. ‘Typical Swiss,’ he snapped back at me. ‘Cold and unfriendly.’

It’s an easy accusation to throw around, based as it is on a well-known cliché. At the time I was not Swiss. I had only lived here for a few years having moved from Ireland, a nation famed for its friendliness. 

The extra irony is, I do chat to strangers on public transport, when it happens naturally and without an agenda. I’ve had interesting conversations in this way over the years. I became a Swiss citizen in 2015. Am I a friendly Swiss person or a friendly Irish person now? It shouldn’t matter. 

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But the reputation of the Swiss for coldness seems to have staying power. At the very least, the perception seems to be that there is a lack of chemistry between Swiss and foreigners in this country. So is that a fair and accurate assessment? 

When it comes to the romantic side of things. Swiss people marry foreigners in large numbers. In a given year, a quarter of Swiss brides and grooms choose foreign spouses. Presumably some chemistry is involved in those marriages.

My impression is that the main source for the idea of the Swiss being unfriendly is anecdotal. In my early years as an immigrant, I noticed that fellow foreigners enjoyed sharing anecdotes of encounters with unfriendly Swiss people. Integration can be a lonely and frustrating process beset with misunderstandings. But are these stories being emphasised because they confirm a stereotype or because Swiss unfriendliness is a widespread phenomenon? 

Hard facts are hard to come by in this subjective area. Some “expat” surveys back up the idea that it’s difficult to befriend the Swiss. But if someone defines themselves as an expat, does that not mean they are living somewhat apart from the local population?  

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There’s another stereotype, expat. A high-income foreigner living in Switzerland on a temporary basis, whose work life is English-speaking and multinational. The natives are just extras in the movie of their lives, a movie that will continue elsewhere. Is this the best group to be interpreting what the Swiss are truly like? Is this description fair and accurate? 

Of course there are many different types of foreigners and not enough surveys to cover them all. There are the people with Swiss partners, who have the advantage of tapping into their partner’s ready-made network, which usually means more fast-tracked integration.

There are foreigners born in Switzerland – one in four of the population – who grew up with the Swiss and probably have friends for life who are Swiss. How should their friendliness or lack of it be counted? 

Generally speaking, language fluency and time spent in Switzerland are probably the key determinants of whether the relationship between outsiders and the Swiss is successful. Not to forget personality! 

It also helps to put aside any pre-conceived notions about the Swiss when you come to live here. That’s easier said than done. The Swiss are the rich kid of Europe, somewhat aloof in their international relations, while domestic politics has its xenophobic moments. 

OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

But to view individual people you meet as embodying these characteristics can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a very diverse country, in terms of language, class, politics, regional differences, and immigration background. 

Perhaps I should mention that I have found the Swiss warm, welcoming and kind. Not everyone, not everywhere, not always, but enough people to maintain my faith in Swiss humanity. Compared to the society I come from, they don’t feel social pressure to perform superficial friendliness. And that’s ok because different countries have different norms.    

The British-Swiss writer Diccon Bewes refers to the Swiss as being like coconuts, in that it’s hard to break through their outer shell, but once you do, you have a friend for life. 

Some things are universal. Two ingredients that have made it easier for me to establish friendships are regular contact and common ground. Times where people are thrown together and where nationality doesn’t matter.

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Maybe the issue is that many foreigners first encounter the Swiss through work or officialdom. But Swiss people are like Clark Kent, living double lives. They don’t reveal their true selves at work. Their true selves are in their passions. 

Hobbies are where it’s at. If you find the Swiss at play or following their passions, you will be able to connect with them because you will be like-minded to some extent.

Whether it’s sports, music or some commitment to the community, the Swiss love joining clubs and associations and organising stuff. Unlike work aperos, people don’t rush home after these gatherings. All you have to do is grab your little glass of white wine and join in.  

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