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Inspiring roundtable on transnational abortion rights: human rights, values and political strategies

[Brussels, 3 April 2015] A very symbolic date for an event discussing abortion rights: 25 years exactly after the adoption of the Belgian law decriminalising the right to abortion, the Equality Law Clinic (ULB) gathered experts and researchers from Belgian, France, Italy, Croatia and the USA, to discuss the current situation with regards to this key human right. A very inspiring discussion, with in-depth analysis of recent law cases, political context, conservative attacks and NGO successes!

Aziza Ahmed, from the Northeastern University (USA), highlighted the increasing trend in her country to consider medical evidence and expertise in litigation cases, based on conservative views on the consequences of abortion on women’s mental health. In a context of individualism, a so-called ‘right to know’ for pregnant women has emerged, supporting the strategies of anti-abortion activists and institutions to call for medical acts and selected information to be given to women before they make a decision about their pregnancy. This kind of biased counselling is already a reality in some EU member states.

Lin-li Pan Van de Meulebroeke (Equality Law Clinic) presented the situation in Belgium, where abortion has been de-criminalised and as such, is still inscribed in the Belgian penal code. The issue of information is at stake when it comes to abortion: half of the practitioners in Belgium are over 55, and only one module in one university (ULB) provides training on abortion.

EWL Policy Officer Pierrette Pape drew a comprehensive overview of the challenges for sexual rights in Europe, including for the right to abortion. She recalled the international backlash on human rights, visible in UN discussion on women’s rights, like in the recent Commission on the Status of Women. Because of the myth of ‘equality being already there’ in Europe, ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is not considered a political priority: as a consequence, health services are not provided, there is no strategy to make them accessible to all women, especially women in vulnerable situations (like migrant women or women with disabilities), women have access to a limited number of contraceptive methods, and public financial support is lacking to ensure equality in access to reproductive and sexual health care. The austerity measures are having a detrimental impact on women’s and men’s enjoyment of their SRHR: EU member states have slashed their public spending on healthcare over the last years, leading to the closing down of medical centers and hospitals. At the same time, the expanding commodification of health is visible in many health areas: in Cyprus for example, where abortion is illegal, abortion has become a private business; in other countries, pain killers or caesarians become ‘financial options’ for pregnant women. Moreover, ultra-conservative and religious groups develop strategies to influence the public opinion and policies, and attack women’s rights, LGBTI rights, sexuality education. The growing use of conscientious objection is a very telling example of a context of vulnerability for reproductive and sexual health in Europe.

Irene Donadio, from IPPF-EN, presented the successful strategic litigation case led by IPPF-EN against Italy about conscientious objection, whereby the Council of Europe Committee of Social Rights recognized the violation of the rights to health and non-discrimination by Italy.

Lisa Kelly, from the Center for Reproductive Rights, analysed several cases of abortion rights litigation, and presented very interesting findings about the framing used by the courts and the subsequent risks to see differentiated treatments depending on the context. By using the concept of “innocent foetus” when there is a need for abortion after a rape, or by stressing on the need to protect girlhood in cases where mothers call for support to their daughters, the courts send messages that abortion can be supported in specific cases, but not as a universal right for all women.

Amir Hodzic, from the center CESI in Croatia, presented its report on neo-conservative groups in Europe and their strategies, selecting some human rights as their core battles: right to life (from conception), right to family (only heterosexual, with a man/father dominant), and right to religious freedom. He called on progressive movements to reclaim values and terminology.

Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty, from the European Humanist Federation, gave complementary thoughts about the extremist religious groups acting in Europe, and how they use the same strategies and framings as the human rights NGOs to get public support, in a context of crisis and lack of inspiring vision for the future.

In the final discussion with the audience, the importance of language, messages and values was highlighted: for example, it is striking to see that anti-choice actors pretend to be ‘pro-life’, and how they value dignity, which is a core human right enshrined in the UN treaties and any national constitution. The right to abortion needs to be understood as a society issue, which concerns everyone as a matter of equality, dignity and respect, beyond an individual choice. All aspects of society have an impact on abortion right, and the lack of abortion right prevents women from enjoying their other rights: economic independence, freedom from violence, access to education and decision-making, etc. The 2014 mobilisation in Spain, which gathered thousands of persons from all ages including men, as well as the recent strengthening of the abortion law in France, are inspiring examples of society actions to consider abortion right as part of the fundamental human rights of our collective community.

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