European Equality Resolution: Implications for reproductive rights in Central and Eastern Europe
The European Parliament has passed a resolution calling for greater sexual and reproductive rights in the continent.
By Kathambi Kinoti
The European parliament on February 1, 2010 passed a resolution recognising among other things that “women must have control over their sexual and reproductive rights, notably through easy access to contraception and abortion.” (Article 38) The resolution was welcomed by women’s rights advocates in Europe. The ASTRA network[i] immediately issued a statement lauding the Parliament and noting that the resolution successfully concluded the network’s campaigns for legislation to secure women’s full control over their sexual and reproductive rights.
The current situation in Central and Eastern Europe
The sexual and reproductive rights status of European women varies from country to country. The Netherlands has very liberal laws; abortion is available on demand up to 24 weeks into pregnancy. In Malta abortion is absolutely prohibited. In several former Soviet states while the laws may allow for women’s access to abortion and contraception, the actual situation militates against any easy and universal access. Since the 1950s abortion has been legal and accessible in CEE states with the exception of Albania and Romania but since the collapse of communism in the 1990s, abortion and contraception discussions have increasingly been framed in ideological and religious terms and this has had an impact on the accessibility of information and services.
Wanda Nowicka, ASTRA’s coordinator notes[ii]:
“Unlike the societies in the West where women had to fight for their reproductive rights in the 50s and 60s, the societies in CEE did not need to defend these rights; they did not develop pro-choice arguments and a movement around these issues. In part, because of this, they have turned out to be particularly vulnerable to anti-choice rhetoric.”
Perhaps because of this absence of women’s political engagement on this issue, in CEE reproductive rights have not historically been framed as a gender equality issue. Nor, as in other contexts around the world have religious arguments taken into account women’s equal rights; the perceived rights of the foetus take precedence over the woman’s. Bizarrely, a former Minister of Health in Poland claimed not to see contraception as a health issue and therefore did not see any need to promote contraceptive services. [iii]
Nowicka writes that health and legal professionals are becoming more and more conservative. While abortion may be legally acceptable, health professionals increasingly cite conscience as a reason to withhold abortion or contraceptive services. She notes a strong probable link to the rise of religious forces.
Demographic concerns also influence arguments against giving women full control over their reproductive choices. The dropping birth rates in CEE[iv] are a source of alarm for many political leaders who advocate the restriction of abortion or contraception. Yet scientific evidence shows that birth rates in Poland have continued to diminish even after the criminalization of abortion in 2003.
Most CEE states have a two- to four-fold higher teenage pregnancy rate than their Western counterparts (excluding the United Kingdom) and adolescent HIV infection rates are the fastest-rising in Europe. Sexuality education in CEE is generally wanting. According to Nowicka, in Armenia it is completely absent from school curricula while in Lithuania and Slovakia it is provided in the context of biology and religion or ethics lessons which are not comprehensive enough. There is insufficient accurate and unbiased information on “all aspects of sexuality, contraception, [and] sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS” and young people are not adequately equipped with skills to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive rights or health. The equally important aspect of gender equality is not generally a part of sexuality education programming.
Sixty three percent of pregnancies in Eastern Europe are unplanned and abortion is the primary method of fertility control in Russia. The uptake of contraception in CEE is far lower than in the rest of Europe a number of reasons. Cost is one factor; in Russia and Armenia the annual cost of contraception for a woman is higher than the cost of abortion. Information is another consideration; often health care providers either have misconceptions about contraceptive methods or religious views that colour their accurate portrayal of contraceptive or abortion choices for women.
What does the Resolution mean for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights?
The European Parliament resolution calls for measures to improve women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services and information. This should include awareness to remove the stigma surrounding contraception and abortion. It also asks member states to implement measures that will ensure that men are aware of their responsibilities in sexual and reproductive matters.
With religious rhetoric against women’s control of their reproductive health and rights on the rise in countries like Croatia and Lithuania, the resolution sends a strong political message. Still, there are significant political will constraints. According to Nowicka, in 2008, Poland’s Ombudsman for Human Rights considered filing a complaint against the provision of Polish law that allows for abortion on therapeutic grounds. He wanted to further limit the health grounds upon which women could seek abortion. Although he ultimately decided against this, the spirit of the proposed action still bothers women’s rights advocates: decisions by the European Court for Human Rights and the European Parliament may attract pedantic interpretations that negate these decisions.
Europe has some of the most progressive laws on gender equality and on sexual and reproductive choices. However in several countries there is still a wide gap between policy and legislation, and the practice on the ground. The recent European Parliament resolution contributes to the bridging of this gap by framing it in the language of gender equality and making specific demands of European governments.
[i] The Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.
[iii] Cited by Nowicka. See note ii above.