The House human rights committee on Monday discussed the obstacles and limitations faced by women seeking an abortion in Cyprus, in light of the US Supreme Court’s recent changes to the legislative framework on the matter.

The discussion, tabled by Akel, focused on women’s reproductive and sexual rights, covering access to abortion and contraception, and focusing on which aspects are covered by national health scheme Gesy. At present it does not cover a pregnant women’s choice during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy despite it being provided for by the legislation.

“In 2018, a big step was taken with the adoption of Akel’s proposal to modernise abortion legislation, but we need to guarantee in practice that this right will be respected for all women without exception,” Akel MP Giorgos Koukoumas, who led the discussion, said.

He added that the committee will be sending a letter to Gesy operator, Health Insurance Organisation (HIO), requesting that all legal cases of abortion and access to modern contraception are covered by the national health scheme, and that the protocol for handling these cases at state hospitals is reviewed immediately.

Koukoumas said that HIO may have to re-evaluate the definition of “emergency medical procedure” while the state health services organisation (Okypy) would have to alter the protocol at its hospitals to make sure that women were offered advice rather than guidance.

“A woman finding herself in this situation should not be subjected to additional psychological blackmail,” he said.

Representatives from the family planning association told the committee that some women who visited state hospitals for an abortion were turned away on the grounds that abortion was not legal, despite the fact the 2018 revised legislation considers abortion a legal medical procedure in exceptional cases.

As the legislation states, an abortion will be covered by Gesy in a period of up to 19 weeks if the pregnancy is a consequence of sexual abuse, rape or incest, or regardless of weeks of pregnancy, if there is a medical abnormality or if the pregnancy is expected to create a medical problem, either physical or mental, to a woman.

According to the legislation, a pregnant woman can choose an abortion for any reason in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, but this provision was not covered by Gesy.

An HIO representative said the scheme covers services that are deemed “medically necessary for the prevention and management of medical situations”, which explains why contraception is also not covered by the scheme.

“If the HIO’s definition of health includes mental health, then its services should cover all legal cases of abortion,” the association’s director Maria Epaminonda said in response.

“Being forced to continue a pregnancy, if it does not fall into the two categories covered by Gesy, and if the woman cannot afford to cover the costs herself, can have consequences on her mental health”.

The committee also heard concerns about the accessibility to the services provided at state hospitals, when there were doctors who refuses to provide them. This “often results in women being referred from one hospital to another through a time-consuming and painful process so they can be served while being in a risky situation”.

An Okypy representative confirmed that some doctors working at state hospitals refused to perform services related to abortion. More specifically, some anaesthesiologists refused to offer their services for abortion procedures citing religious beliefs, which has forced Okypy to turn to outside doctors.

“Banning abortions has never, nowhere in the world, contributed to reducing unwanted pregnancies or abortions,” Koukoumas said, stressing that limiting access to safe abortions gives way to unsafe ones and endangers women’s lives.

He also raised the issue of equality, explaining that restrictions were even greater for women in middle- and low-income groups if access to abortion was limited.

“The state must ensure the health and sexual and reproductive rights of all people, and if an organisation like the HIO refuses to cover the right to free choice for abortion, which is legally guaranteed, it means that in essence it does not recognise it,” gender equality commissioner Iosifina Antoniou said.

She spoke of a “statistical illiteracy in Cyprus” in the absence of data on the number, frequency and type of abortions performed in the country, saying that the number of 90 abortions reported is “ridiculous” and creates a harmful, false impression.

Building on this, Disy deputy Rita Superman raised the issue of a lack of figures on abortions, which the HIO tried to justify by saying the reason for that was that the legislation was revised quite recently.

“The total number of abortions performed in Cyprus is obscure, and we cannot know how many cases we are talking about mainly because most abortions are performed in the private sector,” Superman said.

“Thus, we do not have a clear picture of the magnitude of the issue we are facing today,” which made it difficult for the committee to form a strategy on the matter, she said.

Superman also welcomed Okypy’s proposal to update the protocol for medical services, saying the committee was clearly told that in many cases medical professionals were ignorant on the matter.

“What happened in the US proves that human rights are not guaranteed forever, but they can change depending on who is in power,” Green Party MP Alexandra Attalides said, adding that the state should run campaigns informing women about their rights.

She said the committee expects Okypy to change its protocols because “it should not be left to any doctor or nurse to decide whether a woman has the right to an abortion”.

All deputies emphasised the importance of educating both medical professionals and the public, starting from primary school, to encourage a well-rounded and informed view on abortion.

Antoniou placed particular emphasis on informing women about abortion legislation and options for modern contraceptive methods, noting that knowledge over their rights over their bodies can contribute to limiting violence against women.

“A woman could be denied the right to an abortion or contraception by her abusers,” she said.

All organisations participating in the discussion agreed that women are not adequately informed about their reproductive rights and are offered no psychological support or counselling before or after they terminate a pregnancy.