A passion project
Petra De Sutter was a world-renowned gynaecologist and fertility expert when she decided to take the leap into politics. Now a newly-elected MEP and Chair of Parliament’s IMCO Committee, she tells Lorna Hutchinson what drives her passion for Green policymaking and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“I have been in reproductive medicine since 1987. And I have been interested and passionate about the influence of our environment on our health for probably 25 years or more when I started lecturing, and then did research into the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on reproduction and fertility.”
“I’m a very ethical person and cannot accept that health issues are subject to private financial interests. I’m also passionate about equity and solidarity issues. I think we’re all born where we are by accident, by luck and so that should not give us any privileges over people that were born into less-fortunate circumstances, so we have to take care of each other.”
She says that in the current political climate, the issues being championed by the Greens and the Socialists - particularly in the environmental sphere - are often the same, but this was not necessarily the case when she first got involved in politics.
“If you put social and ecological issues together, I could have been a Socialist for sure, but I was drawn to the ecological aspects, which 20 years ago were higher on the agenda of the Greens, than of the Socialists. Now everybody’s green, even the European Commission says, ‘Green, Green, Green’. You couldn’t have dreamt of this 10 or 15 years ago, but now everyone is becoming green, which is great.”
Before becoming an MEP in May, De Sutter was a Belgian Senator for five years and a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where she dealt with human rights, democracy and rule of law and chaired the rules of procedure committee.
“I was the chair of this committee, which was much more political than all of the other committees, which were more topical. I did that for two years and it went very well”. She explains that ahead of the recent European elections, “I always said, this is my vision; I want to go to the European Parliament.”
Although becoming a full-time politician means that she can no longer juggle both a political career with being a gynaecologist and fertility expert, De Sutter says that she finds it difficult to completely “cut the umbilical cord with the university and the hospital.”
The Belgian Senate role allowed her to combine politics and medicine, but being an MEP is more intensive. “I’m a full-time politician now, but the European Parliament doesn’t sit on Fridays, so I try to see patients for a couple of hours then. Most of my colleagues are travelling that day, so during the time that they’re travelling I see patients, because I am lucky to live in Belgium, so my travelling is limited.”
A dedicated fertility specialist, De Sutter says of her medical career, “It’s my vocation; I’ve been a doctor in that field for so many years. I realise that if I continue in politics maybe there will be a moment that I really can’t combine them anymore but it will very difficult for me to stop.”
“It’s an interesting thing; if you’re in European politics you make decisions that may have an impact on millions of people, and if you’re a doctor you treat one couple to help have the child that they thought they couldn’t have, you change their lives.”
Now several months into her five-year mandate as an MEP, De Sutter has a very clear plan. And it’s green. “I have to put my position here in the bigger picture of what the EU is going to achieve or needs to achieve and the Commission has understood that objective correctly with the Green Deal that Frans Timmermans will be responsible for.”
“For us Greens and my position in the Green group, and what I’m doing as part of that, it’s a little piece of the puzzle. That is probably the most urgent and important thing on the European agenda for the next five years and there is a lot of opposition to it, we know that. But climate change will affect so many people and I’m pleased to see so many young people protesting out in the streets over the past year, because they are claiming their future.”
“We’re making decisions that will affect them. If you’re 15 or 16, like Greta Thunberg today, you know you have maybe 60, 70, 80 years ahead of you, and what will happen to the world in these years? If things turn bad by the end of the century, if we increase global temperatures by three of four degrees Celsius it will be hell, it will really be hell.”
“Not only because of the physical and nature changes that we already see, but we will have conflicts, we will have mass migration, we will disrupt every social structure that we know now. So there will be no world to live in, in any acceptable way for future generations and this responsibility is so important that whatever we do must be involved with that framework. That’s why I think we, the Greens, are right.”
“I’m a very ethical person and I cannot allow or accept that health issues are subject to private financial interests. I’m also passionate about equity and solidarity issues”
Another crucial area for De Sutter is health. “As a medical doctor, health, for me, is everywhere. I very much like the idea of health in all policies and you can also include health in the climate change discussion. It will affect people’s health as we will have all kind of nasty tropical diseases arriving here in Europe.”
“It will affect the economy and consequently people’s quality of life, and it will affect women more than men, so there’s also a gender aspect to this. Health is not only about tackling endocrine-disrupting chemicals, microplastics and nanomaterials; it’s also access to medicines, access to healthcare, equity in healthcare.”
Moving on to her high-profile role as chair of Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) Committee, De Sutter says that her experience as a chair in the Belgian Senate stood her in good stead for this role.
“I was very happy that the Greens group put their trust in me to be IMCO chair. The single market is the basis of the whole European project; we just build everything on that platform. The environment, the fight against climate change and social justice; for me it all goes together, it’s all part of the same system and if you neglect one aspect it will affect the other. You can’t have an economy without social justice because then it will not survive. You can’t have an economy that neglects ecology - we have to preserve and nourish.”
Asked where she would like to see progress as far as the digital single market is concerned, she says that compared to China and the United States, Europe is lagging in terms of innovation, but adds, “We also have to look into regulation and protect consumers rights. The single market 30 years ago was very simple; we were talking about goods, which needed to move freely and was basically about customs so you could generally organise this.”
“Now we’re talking about services, and the interesting thing is, goods are becoming services; Nowadays often you don’t buy a lamp, you buy light. You pay for the light and somebody brings you a lamp, so that you have that light; you are paying for the service. So with goods and services the distinction gets blurred.
“Look at online platforms, users, consumers, businesses. I can easily start something online and have my own business, providing services. Maybe I ship goods, but I will also be the customer of someone else that needs protection. How to regulate that and how to regulate the online world within a physical single market? That’s potentially extremely difficult.”
“In the area of consumer protection, De Sutter says, “As Greens, something that we really would like to see is much more work on circular economy issues and on the planned obsolescence of products. This is something that is really bad: you buy a dishwasher and you don’t know if it will work after five years or so because obsolescence is planned.”
“You can’t use a printer that doesn’t function, you can’t repair it, and they’re so cheap because of course as it’s the cartridges that you pay for, not the printer. Maybe one day it will be the printing service that we buy, not the printer itself. Then, of course, the producers of the goods would be much more interested themselves in recycling, repairing and fighting planned obsolescence, because they would be selling a service and not goods.”
Another cause dear to De Sutter’s heart is Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). “As a gynaecologist, I’ve been active in that field politically for the past five years and now I am, together with Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, co-chair of the MEPs for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (SRR) group.”
MEPs for SRR advocates for the support of SRHR and the fight against HIV/AIDS, as the basis for sustainable social and human development and on achieving gender equality as an integral part of human rights. In addition to this, De Sutter has been President of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights since 2018.
“Climate change will affect so many people and I’m pleased to see so many young people protesting out in the streets over the past year, because they are claiming their future”
“This is not just about abortion, I think it’s important to say, it’s also about access to contraception, it’s about child marriage, it’s about female genital mutilation. It’s very much linked to the United Nations programmes that empower girls and women to make their own autonomous reproductive choices to allow development, to allow autonomy, to allow equal chances.”
“If an Indian or Central African girl is married when she’s 13 and she has three children by the time she’s 18, you can imagine that she has little educational opportunity, no way of providing for herself. If something happens, or her husband leaves her, she’s alone with her children, she cannot provide for herself. To empower women they need education and to have education they shouldn’t be pregnant when they’re 13.”
De Sutter is also very active in the LGBTI movement. “I’ve been working on this from a human rights and reproductive rights perspective for probably 20 years. People should have the right to have children independent of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s a very clear message that I believe in. LGBTI rights and SRHR are connected.”
“The idea that a woman does not have the right to decide on her reproduction, contraception and abortion needs is the same ideology that says that men should only be married with women and women with men and have children together. What are sometimes called traditional family values are, in fact, the opposite of both the SRHR and LGBTI agendas.”
Moving on to the thorny issue of Brexit, and asked if the integrity of the single market can be maintained if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, De Sutter says, “I’m still optimistic that there will be a deal or arrangements or agreements that will indeed preserve the single market and so many other things, such as the rights of UK citizens on mainland Europe and vice versa.”
“There’s a lot of political theatre going on right now and a good example of that is that Boris Johnson keeps saying, ‘well the negotiations are going fine,’ and if you listen to the European negotiators, they’re saying, ‘well, we have no idea what he’s talking about.’”
“It’s a daily soap opera. I hope that there will be another extension and that we have time to come to an agreement. What’s typical for the EU is that even in the worst crisis we’ve always managed to find a solution, a way out, we’re very creative in that respect.”
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