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A string of pro-life rulings by Europe's two highest courts has surprised experts.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld Austria's ban on in-vitro fertilization in November. Weeks earlier, the European Court of Justice ruled against destroying human embryos for scientific research. In December 2010, the ECHR upheld Ireland's abortion ban.

"It's definitely a trend," said Roger Kiska of the Alliance Defense Fund in Slovakia. "Two or three years ago, you never would have thought that within a year you would have three pro-life [victories] in the courts."

The cases coming from the ECHR—Europe's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court—show judicial restraint, deciding simply that abortion is not a right and leaving its legality up to each of the Council of Europe's 47 member states, Kiska said. But the Court of Justice's ruling went a step further, ruling that embryos are human beings.

This stand was both strong and surprising, he said. "It's the first international court decision to say that life begins at conception."

"The very Western, liberalized way of thinking is losing its monopoly over the ECHR," said Gregór Puppinck, director of the European Centre for Law and Justice. As more conservative Eastern countries join the council, they have felt that the founding states—such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom—are trying to impose their own vision of human rights, he said. "The non-Western countries are now trying to balance the ideology of the court."

The religious composition of many European nations has also changed, he said. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, as well as Muslims, are all now weighing in where secular groups have had the loudest voices.

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January 2012

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