No lesser human beings

Women in Malta and Poland should enjoy the same rights, including abortion, like other women across the EU, says the Chair of the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee.

In her first address as a candidate for President of the European Commission in 2019, Ursula von der Leyen underscored the necessity for a ‘Union of Equality’. This concept elevated gender equality to a position of strategic importance within the European Union’s supranational framework.

As her term comes to an end, MEP Robert Biedroń (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats – S&D) expresses concern that the target remains far from reach. In a conversation with The Journal on the margins of the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strabourg, the Polish MEP, who chairs the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee, argued that there is no reason why women in Malta and Poland – the only two EU member states with a de facto ban on abortion – should enjoy less rights than women in other countries across the EU. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he noted how the EU has harmonised standards on bananas, carrots, pets, and car tyres, but has yet to establish consistent standards for something as fundamental as women’s rights.

The Journal editor Sandro Mangion interviewing MEP Robert Biedroń in Strasbourg

The Journal pointed out a reply given in 2020 by Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality, to a parliamentary question submitted by Slovak MEP Milan Uhrík (Non-attached). In her reply, the Commissioner remarked that the European Commission recognises that sexual and reproductive health and rights are at the very core of gender equality and women’s rights. Yet, she recalled that the EU has no competence to introduce legislation on abortions in the Member States.

“The Commission will provide full support to Member States’ efforts in implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relevant to women’s health, universal access to sexual and reproductive care, family planning, and education,” Commissioner Dalli said. “The Commission will also continue to support the Member States in promoting equality in education via policy actions and programmes, including issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights. According to the Treaty of the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU has very limited competence in this area. Definition of health policies, organisation and delivery of health services and medical care, as well as legality of abortion remains a Member State competence.

“The Commission acknowledges the differences in the EU Member States’ national policies and laws with regard to abortion, but has no competence to introduce legislation on abortions in the Member States. It will thus not support specific activities and projects which promote better access to legal abortions through the upcoming multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027.

“Regular exchanges of good practices between Member States and stakeholders on the gender aspects of health will be facilitated, including on sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli. Photo: EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

In this light, how can the EU help change the status quo in Malta and Poland? According to MEP Biedroń, the answer lies in changing European legislation in that direction. “This is about people,” he said. “We have created the current situation, which is cruel to girls and women in this continent. It is appalling that, in the 21st century, women are being deprived of their hard-won rights and that the EU fails to protect them. If our legislation does not reflect the reality and demands of the people, we have a duty to change that legislation. I know it is not easy and I agree with Helena Dalli that it is diffucult to navigate this complicated system of national competences. However, I cannot see why, in 2024, we do not manage to find avenues to protect every woman against discrimination and against the barbaric legislation that is in place in Poland and Malta, where there is a de facto ban on abortion. In Poland, women have been dying because of fundamentalists and their laws on abortion. Polish women voted them out in the last October elections, but we must make sure that such things never happen again in Poland or elsewhere on our continent.”

In light of the lack of uniformity on women’s rights across the EU, Biedroń advocates for the adoption of a European Charter on Women’s Rights, which is being proposed by the S&D. A catalogue of harmonised women’s rights, the charter would codify key rights, including abortion access.

When questioned about the feasibility of the Charter given forecasts of a far-right rise in the coming elections, he remained confident, expressing his belief in a different outcome. With the June elections approaching, he remains optimistic about the prospects for a continued pro-democratic and pro-human rights majority in the European Parliament.

“Give girls role models”

Meanwhile, to mark International Women’s Day, Ivana Andrés, captain of Real Madrid and of the Spanish team during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and Alba Redondo, captain for club Levante, on Tuesday addressed the EP’s plenary session in Strasbourg. Spain won the World Cup in 2023 for the first time, but the trophy presentation was marred by harassment. During the presentation in August, the president of the Spanish football federation (RFEF) Luis Rubiales kissed Spain midfielder Jenni Hermoso on the lips, something which she stated she did not consent to.

In their joint address to European legislators, Redondo and Andrés said that a fairer, more equal society needs to be built through education. Sport is a unique tool that can change lives and educate, and girls around the globe must be given female role models to help them overcome obstacles, they stressed. The next Alexia Putellas, they said, is out there somewhere and is waiting to be given an opportunity. “Let us make sure she gets it”, they concluded.

Photo: European Union

Main photo: Getty Images

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