Will the EU take a stand against the erosion of women’s rights?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Demonstration for Women's Rights in Warsaw during International Women's Day on 8 March, 2017. [Michael Wende/Shutterstock]

In the last year, increased political attacks on the safety and dignity of women, within the EU and beyond, have made human rights a hot topic in the European public sphere, writes Caroline Hickson.

Caroline Hickson is the Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Network.

It has been an eye-opener to see just how cynically populist politicians will sacrifice women to further their own political agendas and consolidation of power.

Any illusion that the battle for free reproductive lives had been won is shattered. It is genuinely frightening to see the emergence of a repressive, chauvinist force across our continent, prepared to openly bully and harass women within the most intimate sphere of their lives.

But as a wave of solidarity sweeps across Europe in response to some of the most egregious political assaults, echoing similar outcry in the US and beyond, it has become plain that the abuse directed towards women’s freedoms and needs strikes a major chord with ordinary people.

This Thursday (28 September), to mark the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, a solidarity march will be held in Brussels to denounce all governments who still deny the basic right to a free reproductive life.

The march builds on the extraordinary struggle of Spanish women in 2015, of Polish women in 2016, and the continued injustice faced by Irish and Maltese women, as well as rising threats in countries such as Lithuania. It will demand that access to safe and legal abortion care becomes a reality in all European countries.

This is a European rally to show that women matter, their health matters and their lives matter. The European Union is based on shared fundamental values that we must defend. Gender equality and solidarity are at the heart of the European Treaties.

Swedish midwife takes case to ECHR over anti-abortion discrimination

A midwife who has been repeatedly denied employment in Sweden due to her anti-abortion stance has decided to refer her case to the European Court of Human Rights as a last resort.

And yet on women’s autonomy and self-determination, we are currently faced with a two-speed EU where people living in some places enjoy basic rights while in other countries these are denied.

It is unacceptable, for example, that in Ireland, nearly 4,000 women a year are forced to travel to the UK to exercise their reproductive right to discontinue a pregnancy. The Irish healthcare system abandons these women, forcing them to travel abroad for basic healthcare. As always, it is the most vulnerable and marginalized, the ones who can’t make that journey to the UK, who suffer the most.

Meanwhile, refusal of care by the majority of doctors on grounds of conscience, which women face in both Poland and Italy, jeopardises access to legal abortion care and exposes women to health risks that could be easily avoided.

In Italy, a pregnant young woman died last year when doctors refused to provide essential, life-saving care on grounds of so-called conscience. Doctors who stand up to the establishment, refusing to turn their backs on women who need them, risk seeing the effect on their career progression.

It is not acceptable that a woman in France can freely access these vital services, while in a different European country she would be exposed to humiliating and degrading treatment preventing her from deciding about her future and the future of her family.

The EU continues to make progress in its approach to gender equality, but if women cannot live a free reproductive life, there is no gender equality. Reproductive coercion has no place in 21st century Europe.

Too many people believe that the European Union is primarily a mechanism of economic cooperation, but the reality check of Brexit and other global events have highlighted that the EU is and should be much more than that.

Member states can only trust each other if they share the values of human rights and democracy. Their treatment of women is a crucial test of the former, while hostility in Hungary and Poland to the rule of law shows that the latter cannot be taken for granted.

If these shared and interlinked values are easily breached, the Union may further unravel. In such turbulent political times, there is an opportunity for citizens and leaders to reflect on the values of Europe and call for human dignity to be upheld for everyone, wherever they happen to live.

If we fail to react and speak up for the kind of Europe we want, then we fail to safeguard the most precious human freedom to decide about one’s own private life.

We must start right here on 28 September, in Brussels, by making clear that people’s intimacy, joy and freedom cannot be taken away by repressive, backward-looking forces. There is a moral urgency to fight reproductive coercion and oppression in the European Union.

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