By Agnese Olmati

Last January (2019) I had the opportunity to get in contact with the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels. There, I discussed the current situation of women’s right in the European Union, focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
The EWL, which is the biggest European network of women’s associations, aims at influencing the general public and the EU decision-makers in support of women’s human rights. It is continuously working to ensure every woman’s dignity and the respect of SRHR in the Union.
Here are some reflections following my contact with them.

Looking back at the events and debates that occurred across Europe in 2018, we are likely to notice that, on some issues, the European puzzle is rapidly falling apart. For several decades, the different puzzle pieces have been struggling to get closer through a long and demanding process of integration, but recently many of them have started to outdistance and even to crumble. Brexit was just the most evident expression of breach and disagreement, yet the EU appears quite fragmented also in other domains, including women’s rights – and especially SRHR.

Gender-based violence, surrogacy, pornography, abortion – the facets of SRHR are numerous and intricate and thus require a deep analysis. This article will concentrate on violence against women and right to abortion in Europe, as these topics have been in the limelight during the past year and have caused great disagreement among the member states, contributing to the breakdown of the puzzle.

First of all, it is important to recall the strong commitment of the EU to women’s rights. The Treaty on the European Union (TEU) upholds the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination (Article 2), whereas the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) confirms the political commitment of member states to fight against all forms of domestic violence (Declaration 19 on Article 8). The Charter of Fundamental Rights warrants people’s right to dignity (Title I) and equality (Title III) and includes specific provisions on people’s right to physical and mental integrity, outlawing any form of discrimination on the grounds of sex.
These (founding) documents present concepts and positions in a dreamlike manner – but do the reality of the EU and the actions of its decision-makers correspond to them?

Let’s first consider violence against women. Despite all the words that have been spent on it, gender-based violence has been on the front page for a long time now. If 2018 saw the growth of the MeToo movement and apparently of the awareness on this issue, unfortunately there was no drop in the scale of the phenomenon, which is still alarming. Notwithstanding its assumed avant-garde, Europe still has a hard time in solving the problem: even if member states are tackling gender-based violence in different ways at the national level, it remains of concern all around the continent.

However, the EU has not been sitting on its hands. Today, the most important question at stake involves the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. The document, which aims at preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, obliges states to tackle it by preventing violence, protecting the victims and prosecuting the perpetrators. The Convention was opened for signature in 2011 and was signed also by the European Union in 2017. But the current challenge in this important step to fight gender-based violence consists in the ratification of the document, which is currently stalling. As of this writing, 7 European countries have not ratified the Convention yet[1], even if the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging members states to speed up its ratification[2].

But what hinders the ratification process? If we consider that the text is the first legally-binding instrument creating a legal framework to fight against gender-based violence, everyone should agree on its relevance and urgency. Even more people should agree if we take into account that it defines several offences as violence against women – including stalking, forced marriage and FGM (female genital mutilation), among others – and thus implies that these need to be criminalized. Moreover, the scope of the Convention perfectly corresponds to what is affirmed in the TFEU, in which member states agreed that “the Union will aim in its different policies to combat all kinds of domestic violence. The Member States should take all necessary measures to prevent and punish these criminal acts and to support and protect the victims[3]” (Declaration 19 on Art. 8).

Women's right Humans rights
“Women’s rights and human rights”, seen during Women’s March in New Hampshire (USA), January 2017. (Marc Nozell, Flickr)

The main reasons why some countries are hesitating lay in misconceptions about its alleged ideological bias and misleading arguments about some traditional values that seem to be attacked by the document. This criticism particularly refers to the definition given to the word gender. Art. 3 describes gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men”.

Sure enough, not all the pieces of the puzzle agree with this statement. Manifest disagreement comes from Hungary, where in October 2018 the government banned gender studies in the two Hungarian universities offering them, the reason being that it is unacceptable “to talk about socially-constructed genders, rather than biological sexes”[4].  No surprise that Hungary is one of the countries which has not ratified the Convention – and it is legitimate to question whether it will ever do it. This specific decision, which is a new attack on Hungarian democracy as well as an outbreak to gender – and thus to both women and men – is the clear evidence that the debate about gender is not saturated yet and needs more discussion in the public sphere as well as in European institutions.

Contrary to criticism, the proponents of the Convention claim that the text does not oppose traditional gender roles, nor promotes the recognition of same-sex marriages[5]. However, still many misunderstandings continue to arise around the Convention and hamper its ratification, creating divisions on a topic on which all European countries should share a strong position and act responsibly and collectively.

The battle against gender-based violence is not the only topic on which the EU appears weak and divided. Looking at the puzzle of Europe, we can clearly see its 28 pieces falling apart when considering the right to abortion.

From the referendum on the eight amendment in Ireland to the Stop Abortion Bill in Poland, discrepancies on abortion laws around the EU have continued to create turmoil across the continent and have contributed to the further development of a complex and fragmented legal and social framework.
Indeed, there is no common European standpoint on this topic and consequently abortion laws vary greatly across the member states, ranging from countries imposing partial or severe bans to countries where it is legal, to other which have legal restrictions based on socioeconomic or psychological grounds.
Despite the general progress made in the past decades, some member states have recently reversed through legislative rollbacks targeting access to abortion services – including proposals for near-total bans – and through the adoption of harmful rhetoric on SRHR based on gender stereotypes and stigma[6]. These retrogressive attitudes are of great concern from the human rights perspective and constitute a real backlash against access to abortion, as women face denials and infringements of this right.

Indeed, the right to abortion can be sometimes restricted also in the countries that have fully legalized it, as the state might fail in appropriately guaranteeing it. For instance, in Italy many doctors choose not to proceed with abortions because it is against their own individual conscience. In some areas, the number of doctors who are willing to perform it is so low that it becomes problematic for women to have access to this right[7]. In this way, objection of conscience hampers the access to safe abortion care and thus becomes a limit to access to this right.

Savita Protest
Protest in Dublin following the death of an Indian woman who was denied an abortion and died after miscarriage, 2012. (William Murphy, Flickr)

Obviously, the right to abortion arises several ethical questions. But considering that women have already seen their right to abortion denied because of individual conscience even when their own life was at risk – and that this denial caused their death[8] – it is logical to ask ourselves to which point the doctor’s conscience can overstep his/her medical ethos, which imposes to prioritize the patient’s life.  Such principle is not only implicit in the medical profession, but it is also at the core of medical ethics and for this reason it is emphasized in the European Charter of Medical Ethics, affirming that the doctor cannot act to the patient’s detriment under any circumstances (principle 6) and that the patient’s right to be treated must be guaranteed also when the doctor’s moral and technical conditions impede him/her to exercise his/her activities (principle 12)[9].

The death of a pregnant woman – and consequently of the life she carries in her womb – is not acceptable and cannot be justified with the doctor’s individual conscience, as it is a serious breach of a woman’s dignity and of her right to life, which are protected by Chapter I of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union[10].

In the same way, it is not acceptable that European women have to seek the right to abortion elsewhere in their country or abroad as a result of such heterogeneous scenario and its abnormal developments.

Again, the EU has not been passive in front of such evolutions. In a recommendation of 2017, the European Parliament expressed its support for safe access to abortion care, asking for an increase in SRHR funding and for the launch of an international fund to finance access to birth control and safe and legal abortion[11]. However, this recommendation did not lead to any improvement nor achievement, and two years later the situation is still deadlocked, giving the impression that the EU is just spinning its wheels also in the domain of abortion.

In 2019, in a Union which claims to defend human rights and promote them all around the world, European women’s access to a right still depends on where they live and how much money they have.
In a Union that aims at sharing values and policies, a common European stance and some concrete actions are still lacking in the domain of SRHR.

With such a complicated and fragmented landscape, how would it be possible to keep the 28 pieces of the European puzzle together, at least in the field of SRHR? As Europeans now generally share a strong support for reproductive healthcare, what is needed is the engagement of European institutions. It is urgent to have a stronger position from the EU itself, as policy gaps in SRHR should be filled in and EU law should become consistent, in order to allow European women to access to the same right and to be protected in the same way all across the continent. Additionally, there should be more investments allowing European citizens quality access to contraception and education.

Also, in the domain of women’s rights, Europe shows all its diversity, struggles and controversies. It is now hard to figure out if the pieces of the European puzzle will succeed in sticking together in the next decades – but being consistent and cooperative in the field of women’s rights would definitely be a step forward in realizing a united Europe, where women do not have to fear violence nor seeing access to their rights denied. Time is ripe for EU policy-makers to go beyond the national debates and demonstrate through practical actions the European commitment to women’s rights which is expressed in the treaties and supported by European citizens.


Featured picture: William Murphy, Flickr.

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