On 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 of the European Union has completely banned it: Malta. In 1990, it was another story, as fewer countries had made it legal, such as Belgium.
On 29 March 1990, after years and years of demonstrations, protests and debates within the Belgian society, the Chamber adopted the Lallemand-Michielsen’s bill, which partially decriminalises abortion, with a strong majority: 126 ‘pros’, 69 ‘cons’, 12 abstentions.
As in many countries throughout the World, the Head of State must sign the bill before it becomes official. It is only a final and formal process which usually does not raise any issues.
But Belgium is Belgium. When presented with the bill, the king told the former Prime minister, Wilfried Martens, that he did not want to sign the bill on account of his conscience.
This raised many issues. First of all, abortion had been discussed and debated for years, and it would have been extremely polemic not to pass it into the Belgian law. Secondly, as the Chamber is the emanation of the people, there is no true justification for the king not to accept and sign what the people have decided. This refusal could have dramatically affected the King’s reputation across the whole country.
To tackle the issue, an exceptional solution was found. Under article 82 of the Belgian constitution (current article 93), adopted in 1831, the king may step down for “impossibility to reign”. It has only been used once in the history of Belgium when King Leopold III was detained by the Germans during WWII.
So the king enacted this power and stepped down, allowing the Council of ministers to sign the bill in the early hours of 4th April. 36 hours later, the MPs gathered to vote the end of the impossibility to reign and Baudouin returned to power, abortion had been partially legalised, and no big demonstrations took place. A typical Belgian story?