Women are "One of Us"

‘It is a beautifully simple step but could help save millions of lives…’ So goes the tagline on the homepage of what has been one of the most successful European Citizen’s Initiatives (ECIs) to date. On the contrary this is an initiative which risks lives, especially women’s lives.

ECIs were set up with the aim of bringing the activities of the European Parliament closer to the citizens of Europe. If a petition can achieve 1 million signatures from across at least seven member states the Commission is obliged to consider the proposal being put forward. So what was the beautifully simple step this ECI involved? As we reported back in October 2012, the ECI states: 

“The human embryo deserves respect to its dignity and integrity. This is enounced by the European Court of Justice in the Brüstle case, which defines the human embryo as the beginning of the development of the human being. To ensure consistency in areas of its competence where the life of the human embryo is at stake, the EU should establish a ban and end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health.”

The ECI achieved the requisite number of signatures late in 2013. Notwithstanding that this was not a “Catholic Initiative”, it was able to harness the infrastructure of the Roman Catholic Church, complete with endorsement by Pope Benedict XVI on the homepage, to gather signatures from across ten member states. On April 9-10 of this year the coordinators of this ECI had the opportunity to present their arguments to the EU Commissioners for Research (Máire Geoghegan-Quinn) and Development Aid (Andris Piebalgs). On 28 May the Commission officially responded to the ECI and – thankfully for women’s and human rights – rejected the premises upon which it is based and declined to consider a legislative proposal that might give effect to it.

As noted in the Response from the Commission the legal basis for this ECI was weak from the start. The ECI purported to draw from the decision in Oliver Brüstle v Greenpeace (Case C-34/10) (2010/C 100/29) in defining the human embryo as existing from the moment of conception for the purposes of legal protection. But this claim deliberately overlooked the fact that the decision in Brüstle was concerned solely with the issue of patentability. As such it specifically did not provide a precedent for a more wide-ranging definition of legal personhood or serve as a comment on whether human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) is permissible or something that should be funded.

If successful the ECI had the potential to severely restrict hESCR within the EU. But more worrying is the impact that this ECI could have had on the lives of women in countries in receipt of EU Development Aid; countries where maternal mortality and morbidity are higher than those we consider acceptable within the EU; countries where access to safe and legal abortion is a basic health need. If successful the ERI would have directly challenged fundamental rights of women and been in direct conflict with the aims of Millennium Development Goal 5 to improve maternal health worldwide.

'One of Us' is modelled on a restriction, introduced by Ronald Regan in 1984, often called ‘the global gag’. This is a prohibition on organisations that receive US Government funding from facilitating access to abortion services or advocating for liberalisation of domestic abortion prohibitions. This restriction applies even if the organisation provides a broad range of sexual and reproductive health services and obtains its funding for abortion services from another source. The ‘global gag’ has been endorsed by every Republican president since Regan and rescinded by every Democratic president. It is important to note that this gag applies in countries where abortion is legal (neither USA nor EU Development Aid is used to fund access to abortion where the procedure is illegal). The impact of the global gag has been measured by several organisations including the World Health Organisation, the Guttmacher Institute, and Population Action International. And what have these organisations found? Unsurprisingly the global gag has increased the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions because of the impact it has had on family planning and contraceptive care more generally. It has also had significant and negative impact on the lives of real women in countries where they most need assistance.

The World Health Organisation estimate that approximately 289,000 women died in 2013 during and following pregnancy. Campaigns like “One of Us” are not a “beautifully simple step” to saving millions of lives. They are moves intended to disadvantage and marginalise women; sadly often those most in need of assistance. Women in developing countries are ‘one of us’ and should be treated as such. 

Professor Heather Widdows is John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics and Head of Research for Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham's Department of Philosophy. Dr Sheelagh McGuinness is a Birmingham Fellow based in the Centre for Health Law, Science & Policy, at Birmingham Law School