Is Europe Pro-Choice Now?


RH Reality Check is saddened by the death of Rupert Walder. We just learned of his death today, and join his many friends around the world in mourning.  Rupert wrote this piece for us last week and has been writing about Europe for us as part of our Global Perspectives series. You can read more about Rupert Walder in this tribute to him.

On April 16, just under 200 parliamentarians from 47 European countries debated access to abortion in Europe, and then voted on a report calling for safe and legal access to abortion in 47 Member States of the Council of Europe.

As reported throughout Europe and the rest of the world, a modified version of the original report was adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with 102 votes in favour, 69 against, and 14 abstentions. While this vote is not legally binding for any of the Council of Europe countries, it did – and does – represent an important first adoption by any official pan-European institution of a report which calls on European countries to decriminalise abortion where it remains illegal, guarantee women's right to abortion, and also ensure that women and men have access to contraception at a reasonable cost.

The French Family Planning Association described the vote as "a major victory for all women in Europe, especially those [women] in Ireland, Poland, Malta and elsewhere, who have been fighting for recognition of this basic right." In Ireland, the Family Planning Association said the report "provides strong evidence of the level of consensus reached across Europe on the issue of abortion." By contrast, one Irish pro-life group described the report as "jaded and grossly out if touch."

During the four hour Assembly debate, which included 72 proposed amendments to the report text, many opinions were aired. According to The European Parliamentary Forum On Population And Development, it was not just personal opinions that drove some parliamentarians to vote against the report. Apparently, the original wording of the report was too progressive for some, with too much emphasis on human rights and not enough on prevention. Voting records in The Assembly are also made public, which would have made it difficult for some to openly vote in favor of a report which might contradict legislation and parliamentary opinion at national levels. And, while some parliamentarians may support access to safe and legal abortion, they may also feel the issue is a matter for national governments rather than a pan-European institution. (Interestingly, many Eastern European parliamentarians did vote in favor of the report, indicating that Eastern Europe – which is targeted vigorously by pro-life groups seeking to create alliances within these countries – is not such a soft option or breeding ground for the pro-life message.)

The lack of actual legal enforcement of this report may be a blow to some. But for others, the actual debate and vote represents an important indication that Europe is pro-choice. A spokesperson at the IPPF European Network says "We believe that this has been an important achievement…for Europe's policy on abortion as well as for the recognition of the right to access safe and legal abortion in [a] broad human rights agenda."

Proposed amendments to the report to incorporate conscientious objection for medical practitioners, the rights of the unborn child, and the rights of fathers were rejected. This is good news for the pro-choice movement in Europe. As Swedish Social Democrat Member of Parliament Carina Hagg put it during the debate: "We are in the hemicycle of the Council Of Europe, not in a church. This [debate] is not about our beliefs. We must make decisions based on fact and on what we read in international documents."

My feeling is that European parliamentarians continue to pick and choose European decisions that are acceptable back in their respective countries – which indicates that there is still much scope for national pro- (and anti-) choice activism at national levels across Europe.

In the end of the day, the adoption of this report is part of a process – of discussion, of engagement of activists with parliamentarians, of European agreement (and compromise), and also parliamentary and political accountability. As Ann Furedi from BPAS puts it; "Women's needs are the same in every society. Any national law that doesn't provide for easy access to legal abortion is a failure in that regard. But ultimately and importantly it remains for the citizens of each nation to decide how they wish their politicians to deal with this issue [of abortion legislation]."

In other words, if you are pro-choice, make sure you let your let parliamentarians and other policy brokers know about it. That is the only way European – and any other – country will remain or become pro-choice. Another will be to heed Carina Hagg's words and listen to the facts: where abortion is prohibited, as it still is in a number of European countries, women will travel or resort to illegal services to terminate their unwanted pregnancies.

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