EU challenges Vatican's draft abortion treaty

Brussels, Belgium - An attempt by the Vatican to reduce the number of abortions in one of central Europe's most staunchly Roman Catholic countries is being challenged by the EU. A legal panel appointed by the European commission has attacked a draft treaty between Slovakia and the Vatican that would have restricted sensitive medical treatment such as abortions and IVF.

The group of lawyers warned that the treaty, known as a concordat, could place Slovakia in breach of its obligations as a member of the EU. Slovakia could find itself "violating its obligations", says the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights.

The panel's intervention came in a 41-page report on the draft treaty, which was drawn up in March 2003. The treaty would allow healthcare workers in hospitals founded by the Catholic church to refuse to perform abortions or carry out fertility treatment on "conscience" grounds if they believe such work conflicts with their faith.

Their concerns were backed by the EU group. It said "certain religious organisations" should have the right not to perform "certain activities where this would conflict with [their] ethos or belief". But it added: "It is important the exercise of this right does not conflict with the rights of others, including the right of all women to receive certain medical services or counselling without any discrimination."

Approximately 70% of the population in Slovakia - which joined the EU in May 2004 - is Catholic.

"There is a risk that the recognition of a right to exercise objection of conscience in the field of reproductive healthcare will make it in practice impossible or very difficult for women to receive advice or treatment ... especially in rural areas."

Pope Benedict XVI is keen to maintain the work of his predecessor - the first Slav Pope - in extending the Vatican's influence across eastern Europe. If the agreement between the Vatican and Slovakia is passed into law it will have the status of an international treaty because the Holy See is a sovereign state.

As the late Pope's closest confidant, when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict tried directly to influence members of the convention drawing up the ill-fated EU constitution. He is known to have telephoned a senior German MEP on the convention to demand that the constitution refer to a Christian God. This failed, as did the constitution when French and Dutch voters rejected it in referendums last year.

Campaigners welcomed the findings by the EU panel. Keith Porteous Wood, of Britain's National Secular Society, said: "We welcome this opinion which shows conscience clauses in EU member countries cannot be taken advantage of regardless of the consequences for others.

"This concordat would enable those Slovaks wishing to enforce Catholic doctrine, for example, on abortion and contraception in the performance of their duties regardless of the adverse implications on the patients, which could be severe. The draft also discriminated in favour of Christians in certain areas to the detriment of those of other faiths or none."

The Vatican has signed similar agreements with Italy, Latvia and Portugal on "religious conscientious objection", but these have been more limited.