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What Hungary Can Teach Post-Roe America

Hungarian family policy offers a roadmap for minimizing abortion in a country where the practice is still legal.

HUNGARY-POLITICS-DEMOGRAPHY-SUMMIT
Katalin Novak, then Hungarian Minister for Families, gives a speech on the stage of the Varkert Bazar cultural centre in Budapest on September 23, 2021. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer marked a seismic shift in the abortion debate in America. Democrats have gone on the offensive on the issue. California, Michigan, and Vermont have put abortion on the ballot this November, confident that their permissive policies—legal abortion even up to the point of birth in the case of Vermont—have public support. 

In symbolic recognition of the shift from courts to legislatures, organizers of the annual D.C. March for Life have announced that January’s march will end not at the Supreme Court as in years past, but at the U.S. Capitol building. For the pro-life movement, the end of Roe was both a victory decades in the making and the beginning of a challenging new political reality. Pro-life enthusiasm has run headlong into high public support for abortion in many states. Even in reliably red Kansas, voters decisively rejected a pro-life constitutional referendum last August. Predictions that the Dobbs decision will provide a windfall for Democrats in the midterms have abounded. 

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For those dedicated to protecting unborn life at all stages, the question of political feasibility in a pro-abortion culture is now paramount. A country already quite familiar with this dilemma is Hungary. 

In recent years, the central European nation has been a lightning rod in the international culture wars. On immigration, same-sex marriage, and the teaching of LGBT ideology in schools, Hungary has repeatedly drawn the ire of the left and won the admiration of the right. In August, the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech a standing ovation. Readers of major US media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, know Orbán as a dangerous authoritarian. 

Abortion, however, is one issue that has generated less attention. It may dampen the enthusiasm of American social conservatives to learn that abortion is legal in Hungary and that its 1992 abortion law has undergone few changes. Women can seek abortion twelve weeks into pregnancy with few limitations, and the law grants various exceptions all the way up to twenty-four weeks. Last month, Orbán even went so far as to say that he does not intend to alter the status quo.

All this despite twelve consecutive years of leadership by the right-wing Fidesz party and a constitution that states that “embryonic and fetal life shall be subject to protection from the moment of conception.”

To say that Hungary is indifferent to the issue, however, would be an unfair assessment. As in post-Roe America, public opinion poses a major obstacle to legislating for life. According to a 2021 Ipsos poll, 59 percent of the population agreed that “abortion should be permitted whenever a woman decides she wants one”.

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The source of these dynamics can be found in Hungary’s experience with abortion during four decades under socialist regimes, explains Edit Frivaldszky, director of the Center for Human Dignity, a Hungarian NGO. The state’s promotion of abortion as family planning resulted in over a decade in which abortions outnumbered births. Since legalization in 1953, over six million abortions have occurred in a country of just under ten million people. Dissent was not permitted and acceptance became widespread.

Frivaldszky affirms that ending abortion legislatively must remain a goal. She admits, though, that at this point in time, “politically speaking, it would probably be suicide to change the abortion law.” Because of this, she proposes that the government pursue all other possible means to reduce abortion. As has been commonplace in the United States, Hungary has implemented soft measures over the years. The most recent, introduced in September, is a requirement to listen to the heartbeat of the unborn child before deciding to go through with an abortion. “This government is good and even stronger on the pro-life line than could be expected if we look at the society,” Frivaldszky posits.

The American and Hungarian pro-life approaches differ in one key way: Hungary focuses on using government to eliminate the reasons that lead women to seek abortion in the first place. That’s where Fidesz’s family policy comes in. Frivaldszky explains that the Hungarian government treats families as a resource critical to the country’s future. Every year since 2012, it has spent an amount totaling over 4 percent of Hungary’s GDP on family policy, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. Hungary has sought to address abortion at the root through providing couples with financial help and shaping societal attitudes toward family.

According to Frivaldszky, financial support for families means that mothers will be less likely to have to choose between economic security and keeping their child. “People choose abortion when they don’t feel safe,” she says. To this end, Hungary offers benefits such as lifetime tax exemption and student debt cancellation to mothers with over three children, subsidies for families seeking to buy or build a house, three-year maternity leave, and loans for families that don’t have to be paid back once the third child is born.

For Balázs Molnár, vice president for strategy and coordination at the publicly-funded Mária Kopp Institute for Demography and Families, the statistics bear out the impact such policies have had on the abortion rate. According to data his institute has compiled, annual abortion rates fell by 40 percent between 2010 and 2020, from over 40,000 to under 24,000. He argues that this drop is visible in Hungary’s fertility rate, which has been on an upward incline since 2011 and surpassed the E.U. average in 2018. He also points out that shortly after Fidesz took power, there was a significant increase in births of third children. As Frivaldszky notes, it had been more common for women to choose to abort their third child than their first. 

Since 2010, the annual marriage rate is up 102 percent, the divorce rate is down 24 percent, and abortions among married women have fallen from 45 percent to 23 percent. While abortions have been decreasing in Hungary since the mid-90s, Molnár sees Hungary’s family policy as an important factor contributing to the trend. 

For him, even more important than the financial measures is the mindset change that comes from the government’s pro-family messaging. Years ago, he explains, having more than two children could be a source of social shame for a couple. This is changing. “What we are trying to do here in Hungary is to give the social recognition back to the traditional family,” he says. “Young people can see older families having two, three, four, five children, […that] don’t have to work three shifts to support the family.”

Hungary often relies on symbolic measures to lift up motherhood, child-rearing, and the family. The government has promoted family festivals and activities and an advertisement campaign proclaimed that “having a family is the adventure of a lifetime.” Molnár points out the fact that families begin receiving benefits for a child not at birth, but at thirteen weeks of development in the womb.

During the socialist era, Fridvaldszky says, government messaging on abortion led it to become “part of the culture.” By putting family front and center, today’s government hopes to shape culture in such a way that children are seen as a gift to be treasured. For Frivaldszky, the goal is ultimately to create a society in which protecting the unborn would not require abortion bans. American pro-lifers—while still working to pass such bans where possible—may soon reach the same conclusion.

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