EU’s call for abortion as fundamental rights – a political bluff?

Spanish MEP Iratxe García Pérez opened the debate on Sexual and Reproductive Health during EP Plenary session. [EP/Fred MARVAUX]

MEPs call for abortion to be included in the Charter of Fundamental Rights is supported by the French presidency, but according to an EU law expert, this is “not going to happen” – and having an anti-abortion Parliamentary president is not the only obstacle.

On Thursday (20 January), the Parliament plenary discussed the proposal from Spanish MEP and the president of the socialist group Iratxe García Pérez to extend the Charter of Fundamental Rights to include the right to abortion. 

“We want this in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. We want this in the European strategy for public health,” she said, highlighting that access to sexual and reproductive health rights “are vital.”

She added that the “socialist group got President Macron on board yesterday too.” 

A day before (19 January), Emmanuel Macron himself, speaking before EU’s lawmakers, said that the right to abortion should be included in the charter. 

“We have the charter of fundamental rights. Twenty years ago, the death penalty was outlawed throughout Europe. So we should use this charter to be more explicit on protecting the environment and recognising the right to abortion,” he said.

However, according to Bruno de Witte, professor of European Union law at Maastricht University, “this is not going to happen, and Macron knew this very well.”

Not that easy 

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is a binding document of the personal freedoms and rights of EU citizens. Member States are bound by such a Charter right when they are “implementing EU law”, based on Article 51 of the Charter. 

Presidents of the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament adopted the charter. 

It would seem simple: those three can sit together and change the text,Witte said, but in reality, it would have no legal force unless the EU Treaties are revised.

“Even though some governments start talking about Treaty revision again, it is not likely to happen any time soon, and anyway the procedure for treaty revision gives a veto right to every state – for example, Poland in this case,” Witte highlighted

Charter’s power lies in Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which states that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, last modified in 2007, “shall have the same legal values as the Treaties”.

“So, it is the current version which has the full force of EU law. A revised version, including an abortion right, would not have that legal force and would therefore be practically meaningless,” Witte explained

He added that “what would be needed, instead, is a revision of Article 6 TEU, to make the text of that article refer to a newer, updated version of the Charter including the right to abortion.”

France should adopt abortion rights extension during EU presidency, says lawmaker

The French lawmaker behind a bill to extend abortion rights has urged Emmanuel Macron’s  government to adopt the measure during the French Presidency of the EU next year in an interview with EURACTIV.

From “a call” to “discussion”

During the plenary’s debate, Pérez said that “we’re aware of the work we have ahead of us”. Likewise, French Minister of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune noted that it would not be easy, but it is worthy of discussion.

He repeated Macron’s point about the death penalty, saying that 20 years before the abolition of the death penalty, it still existed in France. “Rights do change; we should have a discussion of fundamental rights. They’re not set in stone,” he said. 

But health, as well as sexual health, falls under each member state’s competence. “France cannot impose anything on any other member state. No political group can impose anything on any other political group, but we need to have the discussion,” Beaune said. 

The Commission seems to support the initiative. Věra Jourová, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Values and Transparency, said regarding Macron’s announcement, “the Commission stands ready to cooperate and help all these efforts, which will lead to fairer Europe for women.” 

EU Parliament condemns Poland's restrictive law on abortion

A year after the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling that de facto banned abortion, the European Parliament called on the government in Warsaw on Thursday (11 November) to lift the ban that puts women’s lives at risk.

MEPs’ eyes on Metsola

Parliament already condemned Poland’s restrictive law on abortion back in November last year. Despite having anti-abortion Maltese MEP, Roberta Metsola, as a president, they are aiming further.

While many health access activists might feel wary of Metsola’s previous anti-abortion voting tendencies, she clarified that in her role as president, she would represent the position of the Parliament on abortion and not her personal one in a press briefing after the election.

“President Metsola, […] needs to endorse this too. Our eyes are upon you,” said French MEP from Renew Europe Group, Chrysoula Zacharopoulou.

But Parliament’s president is not the only one who is against abortions. One opponent, German MEP from far-right ID group, Joachim Kuhs, said that this is an “attack […] on the right to human life and the right to human respect and dignity”. 

Based on WHO/Europe information, “up to 20% of all deaths during pregnancy in several countries are due to unsafe abortion”. In 2018, there were 380 abortions carried out per 1,000 live births in Bulgaria, which was the highest rate of abortions in Europe in that year.

In contrast, in Poland, where abortion is banned except in exceptional circumstances, only three abortions per 1,000 births were conducted. 

“An abortion prohibition doesn’t mean that more children are born. It means more women die,” Pérez said, explaining that women have to undergo “unsafe backstreet abortions”.

Abortion rights: An open wound in many European countries

Poland already had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, and is on the verge of tightening it even further. But a closer look at other European countries shows the trend does not go towards liberalisation either, while at EU level, the European Commission is legally unarmed.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/ Alice Taylor]

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