Vicky Claeys, Regional Director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Network, writes about the importance of the European elections for her organisation and its ‘I Decide’ campaign:
For many years, Europe has played a leading role in international discussions on development and human rights.
But now it is at a crossroads when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). On the eve of the European Parliament elections, it is unclear whether Europe will remain a progressive force on issues relating to sexuality education, gay rights and access to safe abortion, or whether it will be blown off course by a wave of conservative hostility towards people’s freedom to make their own life choices.
SRHR have come under attack during the outgoing legislature by vocal anti-choice minorities. But this parliament’s legacy should, be one of consistent support for SRHR. The European elections and the changes in the European Commission will be enormously important in setting the political tone for the next five years, and the newcomers must continue to play a strong leadership role on SRHR and gender equality. The likely influx of Eurosceptics and far-right MEPs makes the landscape challenging.
SRHR are facing serious challenges in several EU member states, from Spain, Italy and France to Lithuania, Poland and Romania. In particular, women and girls face growing legal and financial barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services that many other EU citizens take for granted.
I believe that if the EU is to win genuine public support, it will need to become a much more social project that strives to ensure equal access to affordable, non-discriminatory and top-quality public health services, including sexual and reproductive health services.
Healthcare is a national competence, but the EU can promote sharing of best practice and push for higher standards of choice and rights. It is unacceptable that in one country a woman has access to safe, legal abortion while in another she risks ending up in jail when she has the same need. Young Europeans also need access to accurate information about sexuality and empowerment to make their own informed decisions. This must be the norm in every country.
Beyond Europe, the freedom to exercise these basic human rights is still denied to millions of people who cannot decide what happens to their bodies, who they live with, or whether they have children. This is why IPPF launched, on 13 May, its global ‘I Decide’ campaign. The campaign seeks to mobilise public support and demand that governments take action on SRHR for the wellbeing of individuals, communities and countries.
Europe has a crucial role to play in setting the direction for international development, particularly the framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals from 2015. Europe is the world’s largest donor of overseas development aid, and SRHR is firmly anchored in its long-standing development policies, as reaffirmed repeatedly by the outgoing Parliament and Commission.
I truly hope the new EU decision-makers will stay true to Europe’s progressive traditions and do their utmost to achieve a world in which everyone is free to make their own decisions. There will be conservative opposition, but the greater threat is complacency from the mainstream, which assumes these rights can be taken for granted. European voters, take note!