People in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein vote next week on whether to legalise abortion – but they know their voice may count for nothing.
Prince Alois of Liechtenstein, heir apparent to a billion-dollar banking dynasty, has said he will exercise his veto if the people vote in favour of allowing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy or if the child is severely disabled.
The announcement of the prince’s intentions has caused anger in the Alpine nation. It comes as no revelation that the crown prince has inherited some of his father’s strong Catholic views. But voters were surprised by the fact that Prince Alois is prepared to overrule a popular vote if the outcome doesn’t suit his taste.
“We think fewer people will vote because they’ll ask themselves, what’s the point? It really is an attempt to actively influence the referendum,” said Helen Konzett, who helped gather the 1,500 signatures necessary to call the vote, set for 18 September.
In Liechtenstein, with a population of only 35,000 but its own seat at the United Nations, interfering with a referendum is a criminal offence – with the apparent exception of the prince, who according to the constitution is immune from prosecution while in office.
At present, women who have an abortion risk one year imprisonment, except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or she is under 14 at the time she became pregnant. Doctors who carry out an abortion can go to prison for three years.
Even if the abortion is carried out elsewhere, women can be punished for it when they return to Liechtenstein.
Campaigners concede that the law is rarely applied. It is thought only two cases have been brought forward in the past 20 years.
But if the authorities are alerted to the fact that a woman has had an abortion, they are compelled by law to investigate, said Ms Konzett. “There is legal insecurity. At the moment women don’t dare talk about having an abortion, not even with their best friends,” she said.
Some in Liechtenstein feel the prince is right to take a stand on the issue. The country remains one of the few to have Catholicism as its state religion.
In a speech on Liechtenstein’s national holiday on 15 August, Prince Alois said the proposed law change could lead to late-term abortions of disabled children. “Until now we have been proud to support people with disabilities in our country. The proposal would discriminate against such people and allow them to be eliminated in the womb,” he said.
Yet even opponents of the law change are uneasy about a prospective princely veto. “I don’t think it’s good for the referendum,” said Adolf Heeb, chairman of the Patriotic Union Party, whose MPs rejected the proposal in parliament in June. “It would have been better if he had made his decision after the vote.”
Alois would be the first prince to use his veto since his grandfather, Franz Joseph II, blocked a revision of the country’s hunting laws three decades ago. Hans-Adam II, Alois’ father and some say still the power behind the throne, never exercised this right, although he pushed through a new constitution in 2003 that gave the monarch greater powers.