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The Council of Europe Votes for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion in Europe

On April 16, 2008, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) passed Resolution 1607 calling on European Union member states to increase sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) throughout Europe.  A report authored by Gisela Wurm, Parliamentarian from Austria, introduced the resolution and provided arguments for the expansion of SRHR in Europe.  The resolution calls for specific changes including decriminalizing abortion, lifting other restrictions that block access to safe abortion, providing access to affordable contraception for men and women, and providing comprehensive sexuality education for young people.

The heated two-hour debate on the resolution was guided by Wurm’s report and testimony which  centered on the issue of safe and legal abortion especially in those member states where it remains illegal or severely restricted like Andorra, Ireland, Malta, Monaco, and Poland.  Wurm began her arguments stating that there are approximately 800,000 illegal abortions each year in Europe with many of them being performed in unhygienic conditions and that legalizing abortion reduces health risks.  She went on to contend that outlawing abortion did not reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and that women from European states where abortion is illegal would  travel to states in which abortion is legal to have terminate unwanted pregnancies, termed “abortion tourism.  Ms. Wurm characterized the refusal of abortion services as “violence against women” and referenced a right-based argument by citing a 2007 meeting in Mexico City at which Amnesty International called for the decriminalization of abortion.

Other speakers disagreed saying it was important to let member states make such decisions for themselves.  Christos Pourgourides, Cyprus Parliamentarian, pointed out that different countries have different “cultural attitudes” regarding abortion and that those countries with restrictions on abortion have done so after “heated and lengthy debates.”1

The resolution also touched on the need for comprehensive sexuality education for young people.   Wurm’s report argues that sex education postpones sexual relations in young people and increases their use of contraceptives.2  While not a heated issue, the call for education did come up during the debate.  Carina Hägg, Swedish Parliamentarian, argued for sexual education in schools as a way to truly help young women make their own decisions.  Christine McCafferty, Parliamentarian of the United Kingdom, also pointed out, “comprehensive sex education and unrestricted access to effective contraception (…) have been proven to reduce the number of abortions.”  While not speaking against sexuality education for young people, Michal Stuligrosz, Polish Parliamentarian, said, “the sexual education given to young people, at different educational levels, should emphasis the health and social effects of early sexual activity and should not refer only to techniques and ways of protecting against pregnancy.”3  Overall, there was agreement that some sexuality education is needed but not necessarily on what that education would entail or how it would be implemented.

After approximately two hours of heated debate the resolution passed with 102 votes in favor and 69 against. In advising access to safe and legal abortion the resolution also makes certain points clear, that it should not be regarded as a family planning method, it must be avoided as often as possible, and everything should be done while still in keeping with protecting women’s rights, to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions.  It also states that comprehensive sexuality education should give information on self-esteem, healthy relationships, the delaying of sexual activity, and contraception.4  While the resolution is ultimately non-binding, it serves as an official viewpoint of PACE, can be seen as a recommendation to member states and other European governmental bodies, and is a step toward decriminalization of abortion throughout Europe.  It is also the first time an official text from a European institution called for the decriminalization of abortion.

“The European Parliament has taken an important step in securing women’s rights across a new and emerging Europe” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS.  “This resolution will send a strong message that the expansion of a European identity will include protecting basic human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights.”

References

  1. Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 16 April 2008 Meeting Minutes, accessed 2 May 2008, http://assembly.coe.int/Main.asp?link=/Documents/Records/2008/E/0804161000E.htm.
  2. Gisela Wurm, Access to Safe and Legal Abortion in Europe (Council of Europe Committee for Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, 2008), accessed 2 May 2008, http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/WorkingDocs/Doc08/EDOC11537.pdf.
  3. Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 16 April 2008 Meeting Minutes.
  4. Resolution 1607, Council of Europe, accessed 2 May 2008, http://assembly.coe.int/Main.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta08/ERES1607.htm.

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