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Women’s rights in the EU still cannot be taken for granted. We must defend them!

The European Parliament has called for making women’s right to decide about their bodies a fundamental right in Europe.

It is no less than sad, but even in the 21st century, we still have to remind people that women have rights. Sadly, it seems some people, especially conservative politicians, still cannot wrap their heads around it.

As we could see some months ago in the USA, even women’s fundamental rights are not always guaranteed. The US Supreme Court overturned the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling, reminding us that the struggle for women’s rights is far from over. Quite on the contrary: we have a lot to catch up with.

In Europe, specifically, women’s rights to abortion vary wildly from state to state. While in some, it is normal, in others, women have to battle influential conservative lobbyists and ultraconservative governments for it. Let’s not sugarcoat it: the EU even has states where abortion is entirely illegal.

But how does it happen that western democracies push back against women’s fundamental rights? It’s simple. It just needs ultraconservative right-wing egomaniacs to appoint their own ideologically skewed judges into courts. That is why the rule of law is so vital for us: it is the only guarantee that can stop people from bending the law.

Black sheep

The Czech Republic draws its stance on abortion mainly from the surprisingly liberal approach of all former Eastern bloc countries. Abortion was legalised here in 1950, about 25 years before most western states.

However, the EU still has countries where women haven’t won their rights yet. I’m mainly looking at Malta, the last completely anti-abortion EU Member State (except for microstates like Andorra and Liechtenstein, which are not officially part of the EU). The small island state has failed to progress with abortion laws mainly due to the decisive role of the church and family tradition. The Maltese government’s and opposition’s resistance to abortion rights recently got into the spotlight because of the European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, who doesn’t seem willing to support women’s rights.

However, the good news is that Europe and the world generally support women’s rights to choose what to do with their bodies. Politico.eu data has shown that 59 % of men and 73 % support the right to abortion.

Who’s pulling the strings?

Many EU member states have seen a gradual improvement in public attitudes towards abortion. Ireland, traditionally a very Catholic country, for example, legalised abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy in 2018, with much public celebration, joining the rest of the West. In the last decade, Spain has transformed from a country where abortion was basically illegal into one that has not only legalised all abortion but also started paying for women’s hormonal contraceptive pills. Some Scandinavian states allow abortion up to the 22nd week of pregnancy.

However, that’s more or less it for positive examples. An astonishing number of various movements aiming to take away women’s rights to their bodily autonomy have cropped up in Europe in the last decade. They are often funded from abroad or even from EU funds, like Hungary. However, many of them can be traced to American Republicansand televangelists with ties to ex-president Donald Trump – the same ones who were behind the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Between 2009 and 2018, up to 81.3 million dollars were channelled from the USA to Europe.

You probably know whom we’re talking about. In the Czech Republic, it’s, for example, Hnutí pro život (Pro-Life Movement), which recently made a mark with its statement that Ukrainian women should defend themselves from Russian soldiers trying to rape them using sirens. Regardless, the movement is successful in the Czech Republic. Inexplicably, it is currently advising the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, led by Marian Jurečky from the Christian Democratic Party (KDU-ČSL).

The most successful movement in Europe is the Polish Ordo Iuris, which dictates Polish legislation on women’s rights alongside the ultraconservative Law and Order party (PiS), with a dangerous level of achievement.

Europe is not there yet

Poland was the first European country outside of the USSR to allow abortion under certain conditions – but today, it has been transformed into a shelter of medieval thinking. The Polish church, which regained its massive influence after the fall of communism, bears the lion’s share of the blame. The ultraconservative PiS government, which got to power in 2015, has gradually removed women’s right to choose. Now, there is basically none left.Abortion is only legal in cases of rape or severe threat to the mother’s life.

The PiS government found quite a simple way to curtail women’s freedom of choice, even though 3/4 of Poles support it: gaining control of the courts. Several controversial judicial reforms allowed the governing party to appoint its own politicised judges to the Supreme Court and ensure its rulings fit party politics.

The situation in Hungary is a bit better. However, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government has been trying to complicate women’s access to abortion since 2010. Orbán’s strong pro-family rhetorics have been escalating every year. Orbán’s influence increased this year after the former Fidesz deputy PM and Minister of Family Affairs Katalin Kovacs became Hungarian President. In the past, she compared the right to choose to the right to kill.

However, the greatest danger for women’s rights in Hungary is the constitutional majority that Fidesz has had since 2010. At the very start, they used the constitutional majority to enshrine protection for the foetus from the moment of conception into the constitution. Now, inspired by Poland, it has been trying to gain control of the Supreme Court, pushing their extremely incompetent supporter in despite judges’ protests.

Even the neighbouring Slovakia cannot see women’s rights as granted. The Chamber of Deputies declined to curtail them with a difference of only one vote twice in the last few years. Of course, the question is whether the Slovak Constitutional Court would uphold the restrictions. In Italy, women’s rights to decide about their bodies have come under pressure from the Catholic Church and Matteo Salvini’s extreme right-wing Lega Nord. England is currently enthralled by a debate about the Human Rights Act, which currently does not uphold women’s reproductive rights.

Human rights must be defended regardless of the circumstances!

Women’s rights are human rights, and the right to bodily autonomy is definitely one of them. However, the last instance of deciding how these rights will be upheld in different member states lies with the courts.

That is why I supported the European Parliament’s proposal to include the right to abortion in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. This would also apply to countries such as Poland or Malta because EU legislation ranks above national laws.

However, we also need to ensure that member states stop infringing on human rights they vowed to protect when entering the EU. This means safeguarding independent, apolitical courts, whose decisions will not be based on government demands.

We have been standing up for the rule of law in other ways already. The Commission, for example, can use a conditionality mechanism, which ties the payment of EU funds to the rule of law conditions, and it has already applied it in the case of Hungary. However, the entire process is extremely slow, and the Commission should take a much tougher stance and apply this measure against Poland since the Polish government manipulates courts to bully local judges, the opposition, and sexual minorities.

Europe cannot rest on its laurels. Attacks against the rule of law, free courts, and human rights have been on the rise in some member states. Defending independent courts from conservative populist attempts to transform Europe into a pseudo-authoritarian rut should be a priority for all of us. After all, independent courts can save your life in the future.

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