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Hungary decree says abortion-seekers must listen to fetal vital signs

In this April 2022 file photo, a senior member of Hungary’s far-right opposition party, Our Homeland Movement, holds a news conference following a national referendum on the child protection law in Budapest. (Tamas Kovacs/AP)
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Pregnant people seeking abortions in Hungary will now be required to observe fetal vital signs, under a new decree passed by the right-wing government that took effect Thursday.

Under the decree, issued Monday, health care providers must present women with “fetal vital signs presented in a clearly identifiable manner” before going ahead with an abortion. Doctors must sign a report saying they have done so.

“Nearly two-thirds of Hungarians associate the beginning of a child’s life with the first heartbeat,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement on Monday, the Associated Press reported.

The move marks the latest effort by Hungary’s far-right to promote conservative social values. Abortion was legalized in Hungary in 1953, and pregnant people can obtain the procedure during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy for social or medical reasons. That time limit can be extended under certain circumstances, including if there is more than a 50 percent likelihood of fetal defects.

Hungary’s abortion law is relatively liberal compared to many other countries. But abortion rights groups say mandatory counseling sessions and other administrative barriers seek to dissuade women from obtaining abortions, even when it is legal for them to do so.

The latest amendment to the abortion rules, passed in 1992, enshrined the necessity of protecting “fetal life that begins with conception” — a stance codified in Hungary’s 2012 constitution. Medication abortion, via pills, has been illegal since 2012.

The right-wing government of Viktor Orban, who has served as prime minister since 2010, has offered financial incentives to encourage couples to have more children. But the new decree marks its first significant change to abortion rules.

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Duro Dora, a member of parliament from the far-right Our Home Movement who campaigned for the measure, hailed the decree as a victory on Monday.

“A chance at life: from now on mothers will listen to the heartbeat of the fetus!” she wrote in a Facebook post, adding: “Let’s make it clear: our lives begin at the moment of conception and are equivalent to anyone else’s, it’s important for everyone to realize this.”

Medical experts take issue with the use of the term “fetal heartbeat” early on in a pregnancy. Cardiac activity can be detected around six weeks into pregnancy. But the sound that can be observed on an ultrasound is in fact produced by the ultrasound machine, experts say — and signs of flickering reflect electrical activity produced by the embryo, not a functional heart.

Opposition politicians in Hungary and abortion rights advocates condemned the decree this week. Timea Szabo, a left-wing member of parliament, called the new requirement “unacceptable” in a statement Wednesday.

“Aborting a pregnancy is a terribly difficult and complex decision for every woman," she said. “It is highly insensitive to aggravate this process with further traumatizing measures, and it puts a significant additional burden on the health system that is struggling to survive from the foundation.”

The International Planned Parenthood Federation said the requirement “has no medical purpose and serves only to humiliate women.”

“It will make accessing abortion more burdensome,” the organization said in a statement. “The new legislation was issued as a fait accompli by the government in Hungary without any expert or public consultation and without hearing from women.”

The Hungarian Medical Chamber, the leading doctors’ association in Hungary, said the decree does not conflict with its code of ethics, describing the rule in a statement Wednesday as essentially an administrative change. But the group voiced disappointment at the lack of consultation with experts and societal stakeholders before the government published the new rule.

Patent, a Hungarian women’s rights group, plans to protest the new decree on Sept. 28.

The Hungarian decree mirrors “heartbeat bills” passed in U.S. states including Georgia, Texas, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee, which the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade enabled to take effect. Republican lawmakers in the United States have backed away from a push for a national “heartbeat ban” that would have outlawed abortion as soon as cardiac activity is detected.