On the 4th of April 1990, King Baudouin stepped down for 36 hours to allow the bill on abortion to enter into Belgian law.
Abortion has been and is still a huge deal across Europe and the world. Today, only one country in the European Union has completely banned it: Malta. But back in 1990, it was a different story. Very few countries had made abortion legal.
A Belgian solution to a Belgian problem
On March 29 of 1990, after a long period of intense demonstrations, protests, and debates in Belgian society, the Chamber of Representatives adopted the Lallemand-Michielsen’s bill, which partially decriminalises abortion, with a strong majority: 126 against 69, with 12 abstentions.
As in many countries throughout the world, the Head of State must sign the bill before it becomes official. It’s a mere formality that usually does not raise any issues. But Belgium is Belgium. When presented with the bill, the devoutly Catholic King Baudouin told then Prime Minister Wilfried Martens that he could not, in good conscience, sign a law permitting abortion.
The king’s refusal opened a can of worms. First of all, abortion had been discussed and debated for years. Not passing the law would have been extremely polemic. Secondly, since the Chamber represents the people, there was no true justification for the king not to accept what the constituents have decided. The country was on the brink of a constitutional crisis.
To resolve the issue, an exceptional solution was found. Under article 82 of the Belgian constitution (currently article 93), adopted in 1831, the king may be declared unable to govern after which the Belgian government can assume his authority. It has only been used once in the history of Belgium when King Leopold III was detained by the Germans during World War II.
The king invoked the constitutional mechanism so he could temporarily exit the scene and let lawmakers do their thing. The abortion bill was finally promulgated into law in the early hours of April 4. Thirty six hours later, the Chamber returned for a special vote declaring that the king is able to govern again. Thus, after taking a day-and-a-half break from monarch duties, King Baudouin promptly returned to the throne. A typical Belgian story?