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EU divided over abortion in development policy

Development Policy

EU divided over abortion in development policy

Anti-abortion protest, Barcelona.


Promoting sexual and reproductive rights within development policy is not a straightforward exercise for countries like Malta and Hungary. France is working to establish a common EU position before the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting on 26 May. EurActiv France reports

Illegal abortions cause 16% of maternal deaths in developing countries, or 47,000 each year, according to the European Commission’s statistics, making them one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.

But improvements to maternal healthcare, one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), have always been impeded by the legality of abortion in developing and donor countries alike.

The EU’s member states have not escaped the divisive debate over sexual and reproductive rights.

“The problem with sexual and reproductive rights is that they cover the sensitive subjects of abortion and contraception,” a French diplomatic source explained.

Divisions within Europe are equally problematic. A European source told EurActiv that “opposition is very unbalanced in Europe: on the one hand, there is a large majority in favour of defending sexual and reproductive rights, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Greece, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, etc., and on the other hand a minority group are very much in opposition, notably Hungary and Malta.”

Need for coherence

Though they may disagree on national policies, all decisions on the EU’s exterior action in developing countries must be passed by a unanimous vote.

And this is precisely where the fabric of the Union begins to pull apart. In several European countries, abortion is still illegal, or even criminalised in the case of Malta.

>> Read: Commission rejects call to respect right to life in development aid

Yves Prigent from Amnesty International said “we can’t work on the question of maternal health without addressing the legal framework surrounding abortion”.

“For Malta, promoting the respect of sexual and reproductive rights in development policy would equate to recognising the legality of abortion,” according to a European source. This is a concession that the country refuses to make, despite pressure from its EU partners.

European discord

In May 2013, the EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted a text that underlined the importance of “health and sexual and reproductive rights” in the post-2015 SDGs.

“But despite the member states’ unanimous adoption of the conclusions, the Maltese minister quickly withdrew his support in front of the press,” a French source said. This brought down the European compromise.

Although Malta has taken a particularly hard line on abortion within development policy, the small Mediterranean archipelago does have allies: Poland, Hungary, Spain and Ireland are all anti-abortion.

>> Read: UK warns MEPs against evangelical attack on EU development aid

In the interests of cooperation, some, like Ireland, are “not opposed” to opening the question of abortion in development policy, even if this contradicts their internal policy.

Abortion on the Council table

EU countries have reopened discussions on the issue in spite of these disparate stances. The 28 states must adopt decisions on the post-2015 development agenda and gender equality at the Foreign Affairs Council summit on 26 May.

The reopening of discussions was motivated in part by two important upcoming dates in the development policy calendar. The first of these is the definition of the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, due to be adopted at the New York development summit in September this year.

The question of sexual and reproductive rights is even more sensitive at UN level, and certain countries like Saudi Arabia and the Vatican deliberately obstruct all progress on the debate.

“The SDGs will not change now,” a European diplomat acknowledged. “But a common EU position on the subject could give the issue leverage on the UN agenda.”

The second date is the European Commission’s presentation of its 2015-2020 action plan, which will aim to promote gender equality and the respect of sexual and reproductive rights in the EU’s development policy.

The European executive wants to make abortion an integral part of this document, and hopes for the support of the European ministers.

Preparing for the offensive

To encourage the reluctant parties, several European countries are actively paving the way for smooth negotiations. EurActiv has learned that for several weeks now, France been working on a letter, which it plans to present ahead of the Council on 26 May, calling for the abortion debate to be opened. Already signed by Belgium and Sweden, the letter’s authors hope to collect many more signatures. “That will help us to make Malta face up to its responsibilities,” a French source said.

Whatever the result at the European level, the question of sexual and reproductive rights will still have a hard time to reach the top of the international development agenda.

“Today our approach is not to obtain new rights, but to defend the existing rights against rising conservatism,” Yves Prigent said.


The UN is defining the next set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will take over from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire in 2015. New York will host a summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda in September.

The 17 proposed SDGs are:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change).
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.


  • 26 May: Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels
  • 25-27 September 2015: sustainable development summit in New York

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