Abortion debate in the European Parliament sparks divisions and hatred

A resolution on abortion that will be voted on by the European Parliament on Thursday has proved so divisive that the MEP behind it has received hate mail, been compared to Hitler and had dolls of fetuses sent to his office.

The text — on “the situation of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health” — resulted in more than 500 amendments from members of the Parliament in its original form, with two alternative texts put forward by conservative MEPs, and it led to serious disputes within the center-right European People’s Party.

Officials and MEPs involved admitted they have never experienced such a fierce and well-coordinated campaign as that waged by those seeking to block the resolution.

“The external pressure is immense and we are facing hate emails, online petitions against me … they are comparing me to Hitler, obstructing the report and they have a strong disinformation campaign,” said Predrag Fred Matić, a Croatian MEP from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats who is lead MEP on the file. He added that “anti-gender movements” had “gone as far to send little fetus dolls to our offices.”

“It shows us that fights we thought we had won many years ago, such as the one on equal access to healthcare, [are] not the case,” Matić said.

Matić’s report urges EU countries to recognize that all sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), including legal and safe access to abortion, modern contraception, fertility treatment and maternity care are human rights that cannot be violated. It is also critical of the so-called “conscience clause,” which allows doctors to deny abortion if they don’t believe in it. Denying abortion “on grounds of religion or conscience,” the text says, “endangers women’s lives and rights.”

The text, which was overwhelmingly backed in May in the Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality and will be voted on by the whole assembly on Thursday, primarily targets countries such as Malta and Poland that ban or restrict access to abortion. But it also blames some governments for limiting or revoking SRHR services because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This report comes at a crucial moment in the EU, with backlash and regression in women’s rights gaining momentum and contributing to the erosion of acquired rights and endangering the health of women,” says a statement accompanying the report.

While groups on the center-left and left, including the liberal Renew Europe and the Greens, said they would support the text, the issue of sexual and reproductive rights has long been one of intense controversy in the Parliament. In 2013, MEPs rejected a similar report drafted by Edite Estrela, then a Portuguese Social Democrat MEP and now a member of the national parliament.

At the time, MEPs ended up adopting an alternative resolution drafted by the EPP and the European Conservatives and Reformists, which noted that the formulation and implementation of policies on SRHR and on sexual education in schools were the responsibility of EU countries.

The EPP has tried a similar tactic this time but there are cracks in its unity, especially between the more conservative factions of southern Europe and their northern (and occasionally eastern) counterparts. The group has put forward its own, watered-down version of the Matić report, stating that abortion is “not a form of contraception,” and that “regulating the provision of SRHR and abortion care belongs to the Member States.” It also makes clear that doctors are entitled to invoke a conscience clause “should they be asked to carry out procedures that are against their fundamental beliefs.” One senior member of the EPP said he would vote against the S&D text as “we have national legislation already in place” and “abortion is not a human right.”

“We must underline the singularity of this text,” another member of the EPP from a southern European country said, referring to the Matić report. “We have never experienced such an attack against the conscience clause” and “the provisions that are put forward largely exceed EU competence.”

However, others have different views. Janina Ochojska, a Polish MEP from the EPP, said she would vote in favor of the S&D report because “it is not, as is commonly believed, about abortion, which is a very polarizing topic.”

“It is about a different fundamental aspect: women’s health,” Ochojska said. “In principle, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are inseparable from the fundamental right to health, gender equality and the elimination of gender-based violence.”

Critics of the text also include the ECR group, which has also put forward its own text, saying abortion “does not have the status of a human right under international law … and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union.”

On Wednesday, Ryszard Legutko, a Polish MEP and co-chair of the ECR, even asked the Parliament to trigger Article 197 of its internal rules and remove the issue from the plenary agenda. His colleagues, Polish MEP Jadwiga Wiśniewska and her Spanish colleague Margarita de la Pisa Carrión went as far as saying in their written opinions on the report that the text encourages women “to turn their backs on fertility and motherhood.”

But the outrage against Matić’s report has gone well beyond the EPP and the European Parliament.

In Poland, Ordo Iuris, a fundamentalist organization, put out a petition called “Stop the Matić report.”

In Slovakia, MPs voted in favor of a resolution telling MEPs and MPs in EU countries that “issues concerning health policies and education are in the competence of nation states.” Maltese anti-abortion group Doctors for Life also slammed the report.

“It is a frightening text because it presents abortion as something that is good, something we wish for, something desirable like a type of freedom,” Grégor Puppinck, the director of conservative NGO the European Centre For Law and Justice said in a video posted on YouTube.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial. 

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