By Sim Sim Wissgott | AFP –  Sun, Aug 7, 2011

A call for wider access to abortion in Austria has seen tempers flare, reigniting a debate over whether it is a right and whether public hospitals should offer the procedure.

“Pregnancy terminations should be offered in every region,” Health Minister Alois Stoeger said in a recent interview with the weekly News, drawing a heated response from some political parties and medical professionals.

According to the ministry, 29 public hospitals and private clinics offer pregnancy terminations in Austria, but these are all concentrated in the east of the country, with none in the western provinces of Tyrol and Vorarlberg.

And while a handful of private practitioners do offer the procedure in the west, the costs are inevitably higher than in public hospitals.

“A whole group of people, ie. women, is not being taken seriously if in all of western Austria this option (of abortion) does not exist,” the Social Democrat Stoeger told News.

“Women have the right to decide whether they want a termination or not,” he added, and threatened to withhold state funds if public hospitals did not widen access.

“Carrying out abortions is not the job of public hospitals, and it will stay that way,” fumed Vorarlberg’s vice-governor Markus Wallner in response.

“Abortion is not a state duty,” added Karlheinz Kopf of the conservative People’s Party, the Social Democrats’ coalition partner in government, while the Austrian medical association deemed it “alarming” to link access to abortion with the allocation of state funds.

For many critics in this majority Catholic country, even the basic legality of terminating a pregnancy is in doubt.

A 1975 law states only that abortions are “not subject to penalties” if carried out within the first three months of a pregnancy or in case of serious health concerns for the mother or baby.

The text is known as the “grace period solution” (Fristenloesung) rather than the “abortion law.”

The far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) insisted the law “only says that the killing of unborn lives is free from sanctions, but it remains illegal.”

“There is no such thing as a right to abortion,” FPOe deputy Dagmar Belakowitsch-Jenewein added in response to Stoeger’s proposal, while the president of the medical association warned it would be “ethically questionable to force doctors to carry out abortions against their will.”

The People’s Party, and unsurprisingly the Catholic Church, called for more measures to promote family life and encourage women to keep their child.

Stoeger’s proposals were welcomed, however, on the other side of the political spectrum by his fellow Social Democrats, the opposition Greens and the media, which warned of the risks of seeking an abortion from illegal practitioners.

“Women have a right to self-determination over their body and should not be hindered by inadequate medical facilities,” said the Social Democrat minister for women’s affairs, Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek.

While no official statistics exist, it is estimated that some 30,000 abortions occur every year in Austria.

An abortion can cost anywhere between 300 and 800 euros ($425-1,130) and unlike some other European countries, it is not covered by health insurance.