While the fate of RU486 here will be decided by a conscience vote, in
Europe the abortion issue is contentious enough to make or break
governments. Last night, the government of Slovakia announced early elections to be held in June, following a walkout by its junior coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Movement.

The issue is a draft Concordat,
or treaty, with the Vatican that aims to protect the rights of
Slovakia’s Catholics. But the language of the treaty is so broad that
it could allow Catholics to refuse to perform any services that they
object to on religious grounds. According to an opposition spokeswoman:
“On the basis of this treaty, a doctor could refuse to prescribe
contraceptives, or refuse to advise a pregnant woman that her foetus is
deformed so she wouldn’t have an abortion. A teacher could refuse to
teach certain facts in the name of conscientious objection.”

The Vatican and its supporters have tried to portray this as a human
rights issue, helped by the fact that Slovakia’s constitution gives
priority to human rights treaties. The same issue has also raised controversy
in the United States. But of course no-one is forced to become a
doctor, pharmacist or whatever; if you choose to enter those
professions, it’s no violation of your rights to insist that you do the
work. It would be like a “conscientious objector” who volunteered to
join the army but then refused to fight.

The Christian Democrats wanted to have the treaty ratified straight
away, but prime minister Mikulas Dzurinda (whose party, confusingly, is
the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union) and the other coalition
parties insisted on deferring it for further consideration.

There will now be intense competition between them for the centre-right
vote in this strongly Catholic country; according to commentator
Grigorij Meseznikov, the alternatives are “the anchoring of the young
Slovak democracy in a liberal Europe or the creation of a conservative
and traditionalist pole” with neighbouring Poland.

Slovakia’s opposition is a confusing mix of communists, social
democrats, liberals (who left the government last year) and
nationalists, so who will emerge with the upper hand after the election
is anyone’s guess.