While sex education campaigners celebrate the falling rate of teenage pregnancies in England and Wales, the European Parliament has signalled a lack of interest in future progress around sexual and reproductive health. The Parliament on Tuesday (World Human Rights Day, of all days) adopted a resolution on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), a decision that could have led to clear guidelines on the direction European SRHR policies should take. Instead, the Parliament chose to adopt a resolution that removes all responsibility of the EU in sexual health related matters, and leaves the topic to be debated at national level.
But there was another option that the Parliament could have chosen. By voting for the now adopted resolution, the MEPs rejected a progressive SRHR report that had been submitted to plenary vote by the Committee of Women’s Rights and Gender equality. The report, known as the Estrela report after its author the Portuguese MEP Edite Estrela, included recommendations for member countries to provide proper family planning services, compulsory sexual and relationship education, and non-judgemental STI care. The report also calls for members to fight against gender-based violence.
So why was the report rejected in favour of a resolution that avoids addressing SRHR issues at any cost? The relentless efforts of right-wing and religious lobbying groups seems to have done the trick. And, unsurprisingly, the most vocal opponents of the report were religious 'pro-life' groups. MEPs reportedly received over 80,000 emails from anti-abortion lobbyists, some of which included personal threats. After the report was rejected by the European Parliament, several pro-life websites celebrated the fall of the “dangerous” report, which “would have made abortion a human right.”
Indeed, the report recommends that legal and safe abortion should be available to all, even non-resident women. It also calls member states to guarantee that legal abortion services are not prevented or delayed by obstacles such as conscientious objection. Certainly such recommendations shock people who are convinced that banning abortions will stop them from happening, and that the conscience of 'pro-life' medical practitioners should always override the wishes of their patients. While skimming through the report looking for evidence on the Women’s Rights Committee’s unabashed intent to kill innocent children, the lobbyists must have however missed these paragraphs:
The European Parliament,
28. Emphasises that voluntary family planning contributes to preventing unintended and unwanted pregnancies and reduces the need for abortion;
31. Underlines that in no case must abortion be promoted as a family planning method;
32. Stresses that the Member States should implement policies and measures aimed at preventing people from having abortions for social or economic reasons and providing support to mothers and couples in difficulty;
Such recommendations should only seem reasonable in today’s Europe: Only three EU countries (Malta, Poland and Ireland) severely restrict abortion – with Malta being the only country in Europe to enforce a ‘blanket ban’ on all abortions.
It is not only women who would have benefitted from the adoption of the Estrela report. It also called for compulsory age-appropriate sexual and relationship education for school children, including positive discussion on LGBTI people; the availability of quality public information on STIs, especially HIV/AIDS; and the protection of people from all sorts of sexual violence and control. Any such resolution would have been non-binding, but it would have shown the willingness of the European Parliament to address today’s realities, and recommend sensible actions.
While the European Parliament should be ashamed of denying its responsibility in Europe’s SRHR discussion (and many MEPs are), the zealous lobbyists maybe did not get all that they wanted. The adopted resolution only passed with a narrow margin of 334 to 327, and it also meant the fall of an ultra-right-wing/religious amendment to the report. This amendment included such recommendations as “promotion of natural family planning methods”, “access to non-judgmental information about post-abortion trauma syndrome” and that (with disturbing echo of the Russian ‘gay propaganda ban’) “sexuality education must be part of a broader, supportive approach to young people’s emotional development so as to enable them to form mutually respectful relationships with members of the opposite sex”. Luckily the majority of MEPs will not vote for such ideas, but there is no escaping the fact that “the conservative religious lobby has found us [The European Parliament] too," as the Dutch liberal MEP and secularist Sophie in't Veld said after the failure of the Estrela report.