2013 was a a tough year for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in the EU. Opponents worked hard to impede new progressive developments in this area, often relying on religious beliefs. One of their main objectives is to forbid access to legal and safe abortion and contraception for women in Europe.
Religious beliefs are not an obstacle to women’s SRHR but religious extremism is. Extremist religious groups try to impose their own conservative views at the EU level, ignoring the views of many religious and non religious people.
In 2013/2014, the EHF closely monitored the following trends:
During Autumn 2013, Members of the European Parliament discussed and voted on a very progressive report on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) authored by MEP Edite Estrela (S&D).
This report was a major initiative of pro-choice MEPs and aimed at protecting and promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) within the EU and abroad in EU’s development programmes. This report called for a strong EU action on SRHR in the context of rising obstacles such as the current economic crisis and a virulent anti-choice opposition in several EU countries (e.g. Spain and Hungary) and within European institutions (PACE, ECSR and the EP). Although non-binding for EU Member-States, it was a great opportunity for the European Parliament to promote women’s rights.
Together with other progressive NGOs*, the EHF mobilised Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) at all stages to ensure a majority vote for the report. Through a strong advocacy and pedagogical work, we explained to EU decision makers what was at stake with the report and why it was important for the European Parliament to make this progressive move.
Unfortunately, the report was eventually defeated on 10 December 2013. However, this great mobilisation of progressive NGOs has succeeded in raising decision makers’ and citizens’ awareness on the SRHR issue. The EHF will continue this collaborative work in the woming months to put women’s rights high on the European agenda.
* Our partners include : European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, ILGA-Europe, Catholics for Choice, European Women’s Lobby, International Planned Parenthood Federation- European Network, European NGOs for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Population and Development, Marie Stopes International, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Le planning familial, Center for Reproductive Rights
A progressive report
More precisely, the final report:
- Called on the Member States to provide access to SRHR services through a rights-based approach and without any discrimination;
- Recommended that, as a human rights and public health concern, high-quality abortion services should be made legal, safe, and accessible to all within the public health systems of the Member States, including non-resident women;
- Stressed that Member States should regulate and monitor the use of conscientious objection in the key professions, so as to ensure that the access to high quality SRHR services – where legal – is ensured;
- Called on the Member States to promote comprehensive sexual education including the fight against stereotypes and all forms of gender violence and a positive view of LGBTI persons.
- This report also addressed: Prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections; Violence related to sexual and reproductive rights; Pornography and sexualisation of young girls; SRHR in EU’s development programmes.
Religious harassment and fierce conservative opposition
During the negotiations, Members of the European Parliament were harassed – more than 80 000 emails received – by extremist religious organisations requesting them to reject the report, sometimes with personal threats. These organisations have spread the most shameful lies about the content of the report, saying for instance that its adoption would lead to compulsory masturbation for children or to legalisation of paedophilia in Europe.
MEPs opposed to contraception, abortion rights and comprehensive sexual education also strongly attacked the report during negotiations in Women’s Rights Committee by introducing a great deal of very conservative amendements with biased arguments, mainly the protection of the human embryo since conception (relying on the controversial ECJ Brüstle decision) and the abusive extension of the scope of conscientious objection.Their amendments were all rejected during the vote in the Women’s Rights Committee on 17 September 2013.
Moreover, opponents to women’s rights within the European Parliament claimed that the procedure of adoption of the report was “undemocratic” and offically complained to EP President Martin Schulz. But this was just another technique to delay and block the vote on this report on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
EP plenary session of 22 October 2013
During its plenary session of 22 October, the European Parliament experienced a tense debate on the SRHR report. Conservative anti-choice MEPs loudly shouted Edite Estrela down and requested to get the report referred back in committee. A majority of MEPs voted in favor of this request (351 against 319) and the report was therefore taken out from the EP agenda.
Fortunately, an alternative resolution authored by conservatives MEPs, which sought to defend a dignified vision of maternal health, to extend conscientious objection and to promote “healthy” sexual education for children, was rejected.
As several MEPs pointed it out during the debate, this boycott was another clear attempt of conservatives to impede any progressive move related to women’s SRHR. On 17 September, the report had been adopted with a clear majority within the Women’s rights and Gender Equality Committee (17 MEPs in favor, 7 against) and there was no reason to refer it back for further discussions.
Abortion legislation in Europe – state of play, IPPF-EN 2012
EP plenary session of 10 December 2013
On 26 November, the Estrela report was therefore renegotiated in the Women’s Rights Committee. A majority of committee members voted again in favour of the amended report by 19 against 15. This second version kept the most important issues from the initial proposals. Nevertheless, it took out several controversial parts such as access to fertility treatments, parts on surrogate motherhood, and on sexuality education. This second version was well balanced and still progressive.
On 10 December, the report came back at the plenary of the European Parliament for another vote.
By a margin of seven votes, Members of the European Parliament failed to adopt the report and voted instead in favour of a centre-right and far-right Resolution (replacing the Estrela report) denying the competence of the EU in the area of SRHR. This resolution initiated by conservatives only aimed at avoiding a debate on this issue at the European level and at undermining any further role of the European Union in the area of women’s rights.
But MEPs also clearly rejected an extremely conservative motion tabled by the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group, which proposed greater restrictions on access to safe abortion and other retrograde anti-choice measures, by an overwhelming 548 to 95 votes.
Technical errors affecting the vote
In the following days, it emerged that the voting results were seriously affected by several technical errors. Originally it was declared that the joint European People’s Party (EPP)/European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) alternative resolution had passed by a margin of seven votes replacing the Estrela report. But this figure was then revised following the correction of errors in the vote on 10 December. It was revealed that an equal number of MEPs voted for and against the alternative EPP/ECR resolution where a number of MEPs votes were recorded incorrectly, or not recorded at all. Had these votes been correctly recorded, the EPP/ECR resolution would have been rejected, enabling a move to vote on the Estrela Report.
In addition, as reported by several MEPs and the recording of the plenary session, the simultaneous interpretation of the statement of Edite Estrela calling to vote against the EPP/ECR resolution prior to the vote was misleading.
Sadly, according to the rules of procedures, the vote as confirmed during the plenary stands in spite of these elements.
 Among others : La Manif pour Tous and le Printemps Français (Fr),European Dignity Watch, the European Federation of Catholic Family Associations, “One of Us” – the Vatican supported petition to protect the “physical integrity” of the human embryo in Europe, “The Turtle Bay and Beyond“
On Tuesday 8 October 2013, the European Parliament adopted the Report on “Gendercide – the missing women?” which aims at fighting Gendercide while preserving women’s right to access sexual and reproductive services. “Gendercide” is a sex-neutral term referring to the systematic, deliberate and gender-based mass killing of people belonging to a particular sex – mostly female infants, including female foetuses. This is a rising but underreported problem in several countries, with lethal consequences.
This report :
- Affirms that Gendercide remains a crime and a severe violation of human rights;
- Focuses on the core and root reasons of Gendercide in societies : son preference, gender inequality and rooted patriarchal culture;
- Proposes concrete measures to end Gendercide, such as combatting persisting obstacles discriminating against girls, ensuring inheritance rights for women, providing economic, educational and political empowerment to women and girls;
- Explicitely states that while combating Gendercide, legislators must protect women’s access to legitimate sexual and reproductive health technologies and services such as ultrasound, DNA blood testing and safe abortion services where legal.
- Calls on governments to improve women’s access to health care, in particular prenatal and maternal care, education, agriculture, credit and microloans, economic opportunities and property.
During the legislative process, opponents to women’s rights and gender equality in the European Parliament have hijacked the report to argue that only restricting access to sexual and reproductive health services can eliminate Gendercide and pre-natal sex selection.
Doing so, they have intentionally maintained the confusion between abortion for the purposes of sex-selection with coercive abortion, forced abortion and voluntary abortion upon a woman’s choice, their final objective being to cut all EU funding to SRHR and restrict women access to SRHR services. Unsurprisingly, these MEPs introduced anti-choice amendments which focused on protecting any human embryo from the conception and on extending the right to conscientious objection to hospitals and medical establishments.
One of these amendments was eventually adopted during the vote and states that “Union assistance should not be provided to any authority, organisation or programme which promotes, supports or participates in the management of any action which involves such human rights abuses as coercive abortion, forced sterilisation of women or men, or determination of foetal sex resulting in prenatal sex selection or infanticide“. As the European Parliamentary Forum explains, this wording has been extensively used in the past by opponents to women’ rights to cut any EU funding to organisations and programmes working on women’ s sexual and reproductive health.
However, most of the conservatives’ attempts to weaken the report were hopefully defeated thanks to a mobilisation of progressive forces in the European Parliament, with the support of several NGOs such as the European Humanist Federation, Catholics for Choice and the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development.
Launched in May 2012, the European citizens’ initiative “One of us” reached the required number of signatures – 1 million – to be officially presented to European institutions (the public hearing was held on April 10). Since the creation of this new participatory tool at the EU level, it is the second petition to meet the requirements set by the Commission.
What is it (really) for?
This petition claims to protect “human life in Europe”, “Human Dignity of every citizen in the EU” and “defend the life of the weakest”, i.e. protect the human embryo from the moment of conception.
More than of a symbolic sacralisation of the human embryo – issue on which the EU has no competence –, the petition calls on European institutions to act on very concrete European policies.
First, it calls on a ban of EU funding for human embryonic stem cells (hESC) research even though this funding currently applies only to countries allowing this research (such as Belgium, UK or Sweden); even though it affects 7 days frozen embryos leftover from in vitro fertilization after parents’ consent; even tough this promising research could help healing a number of degenerative diseases (e.g. Parkinsonism, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, diabetes and heart failures).
Second, it calls on a ban of EU funding for NGOs providing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services in developing countries, even though these services save lives, reduce poverty and increase women’s control on their sexuality and body. This initiative is part of a strong lobbying action of several countries and extremist religious organisations (such as European Dignity Watch) which spread the ridiculous statement that Europe is paying for pre-selecting children based on gender and forced abortion in poorest countries.
Behind the European Citizen’s Initiative “One of Us” : 2 popes & 1 million Europeans choose to abandon fight against maternal mortality – EPF
This initiative is funded by the Italian anti-choice organization Fondazione Vita Nova (50 000 euros). It has officially been supported by Pope Francis and is represented by Patrick Gregor Puppinck, Director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), an Evangelical anti-choice NGO based in Strasbourg (France). The ECLJ is the European part of the American Centre for Law and Justice and has specialized in litigation at the European Court of Human Rights where it attempts to limit recognition of LGBT’s and reproductive rights. Many national “One of Us” partners are local anti-abortion movements and this initiative has received clear support from bishops’ representatives at the European level (COMECE).
Furthermore, the organisers of this initiative have misled their supporters with an incorrect reading of the EU treaties and a manipulation of legal instruments, ignoring EU’s commitment to reach Millennium Development Goals.
If it becomes law, “One of Us” will have dramatic consequences for research, women and public health
The EHF has mobilised with other human rights organisations to oppose this initiative and guarantee freedom of research in Europe and SRHR services in developing countries. We have worked on the two issues attacked by One of Us : research in Europe and maternal health in developing countries by : providing EU decision-makers and citizens with objective and detailed information on One of Us ; mobilising pro-choice Members of the European Parliament to speak out against One of Us ; alerting the media on the extremist religious lobbying acting at the EU level.