By Krisztina Fenyo
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian women voiced dismay as an amendment to abortion rules took effect on Thursday in what some see as a first step towards a tightening of access to the procedure under a deeply conservative government.
Interior Minister Sandor Pinter submitted an amendment to abortion rules this week requiring pregnant women to submit evidence from their healthcare provider of a definitive sign of life, widely interpreted as the heartbeat of a foetus, before requesting the procedure.
The number of abortions fell to about 22,000 in Hungary last year from over 90,000 in 1990 based on official statistics. However, some women interviewed by Reuters were sceptical that the amendment could further dent demand for abortions.
"I think this will not change the mind of someone who has already decided to opt for an abortion, so this is completely unnecessary and will only torment women," Borbala Jonas said at a playground in central Budapest amid the cheerful jostle of children around her.
Current rules allow Hungarian women to request an abortion in cases of rape, risks to the mother's health from the pregnancy, a severe disability of the unborn child or in case of a serious personal crisis.
Poland, among Europe's most devoutly Catholic countries, has a near-total ban on abortion. Access to it was tightened in recent years under the Law and Justice (PiS) party, Hungary's conservative nationalist ally, triggering major protests.
"That's my biggest fear that they are taking away our rights step by step, bit by bit," said Nora Bakacs, a Budapest mother. "I do believe that it is a first step, and it is going to go from here, to the most extreme."
Right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban was easily re-elected in April but faces his toughest term in power since a 2010 landslide victory with the forint skirting all-time lows, energy costs surging and European Union funds in limbo amid a row over backsliding from democratic standards.
The government gave no reason for the abortion amendment.
Some political analysts have said it could be aimed at mobilising more conservative voters for Fidesz in politically challenging times by clipping the wings of the far-right Our Homeland party, which won seats in parliament for the first time in April and originally campaigned for the changes.
Dora Duro, an Our Homeland lawmaker, said that even after the decline in abortions seen over the past decades, there were still too many in the central European country.
"This is a procedural change," said the mother of four, holding up a plastic replica of a 10-week-old foetus.
"This is necessary because every fifth child conceived in Hungary still falls victim to an abortion and that is an exceedingly high number."
Women's rights group Patent said the changes would not curb demand for abortions but could foreshadow a possible future tightening in abortion laws.
"Making access to abortions more difficult will not lead to a decline in the number of abortions," spokeswoman Julia Spronz said. "It serves the only purpose of inducing guilt in women so that they feel even worse, even more like a sinner."
(Reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; Writing by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Mark Heinrich)