After the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it’s even more important to put women’s health at the heart of the European global agenda

After the US Supreme Court ruling, the EU must work even harder to shore up women's access to sexual and reproductive health
Protestors rally for abortion rights in New York City's Union Square Park on 14 May 2022. Photo: Alamy

By Udo Bullmann

Udo Bullmann (DE, S&D) is coordinator of the S&D Group for the DEVE Committee 

07 Jul 2022

The attack on women’s rights and the backlash on access to fundamental health services in the United States, Europe and worldwide must be stopped. We cannot allow ultra-conservative campaigns to rival progress on women’s right to self-determination and to a healthy life. This - of course - must naturally include sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). 

 As a progressive and an ally of the feminist movement,  I have always been and continue to be at the forefront of the equality agenda. During my career as a Member of the European Parliament, in fact, I have tirelessly campaigned for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of which gender equality is one of the central elements. But while many of us saw social progress as a logical pathway towards free societies and humanism, the far-right and ultra-conservatives have organised themselves. It is clear that the progression towards stronger and more profound access to sexual and reproductive health is not a given anymore; and this backlash is happening globally throughout societies and political systems. 

But while many of us saw social progress as a logical pathway towards free societies and humanism, the far-right and ultra-conservatives have organised themselves.

The recent overturn of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court, a case which has been critical to granting women across the US safe and legal access to abortion care, is a disgrace. Reversing Roe v. Wade opens the way for US states to fully strip away all possibilities to safely end pregnancies, regardless of the circumstances. This decision by the US Supreme Court is going to push abortions into illegal and unsafe territories, further endangering the lives of many women. 

Safe and legal access to sexual and reproductive health services is still extraordinarily difficult to ensure also at global level. A recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, an NGO focusing on sexual and reproductive health, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows strong disparities in access to sexual and reproductive health services worldwide. Simultaneously, the latest State of the World Population report by The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) confirms the need to strengthen the rights and improve the health of women and girls. 

 Lack of access to contraception is still an enormous global challenge with 172 million women and girls not using any contraception at all, and about 85 million relying on unsafe and outdated methods, according to the UNFPA’s State of the World Population report. This results in 121 million unintended pregnancies, meaning that, for many women and girls around the globe, the most important decision of their life is taken away from them. The reason lies in the lack of access to adequate SRHR services and information, as well as stigma, discrimination, and gender-based violence. Of these 121 million unintended pregnancies, the report finds that 61% ended in abortion, translating into 73 million abortions taking place each year, 45% of which are taking place under unsafe, inhumane, sometimes life-threatening circumstances. 

As coordinator of the S&D Group in the Committee on Development (DEVE) of the European Union, and a substitute member of the EU’s Joint Parliamentary Assembly with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, I am also worried about the situation in some parts of the African continent. Given the precarious state of health infrastructure in some places in Africa, many women on the continentare especially affected by this situation, even though the rates of unintended pregnancies vary by region a lot. While the unintended pregnancy rate in sub-Saharan Africa has been declining over the past years, some countries in the region are among the ones where women and girls face the greatest challenges: in Kenya and Uganda, for example, around 60% of all pregnancies are unintended. 

While the global pandemic proved the urgent need to build resilient and strong health care systems around the world, the most persistent health crises often go unnoticed. The publication of these reports by the Guttmacher Instituteand the UNFPA show once again how a rapid improvement in women’s and girls' health is urgently needed at a global level. Without education, access to contraception, and access to sexual and reproductive health services, the lives of many women and girls are at risk on a daily basis.   

The alarming figures show how persistent the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health remains, and how drastic its consequences are for many women and girls around the world. Despite the recent efforts, much remains to be done. 

Sexual and reproductive rights must be enshrined into the EU’s external policies as part of our cooperation with third countries, as well as within our direct work with civil society organisations and in multilateral contexts.

In its work with partner countries, there are at least three areas in which the EU can address the lack of access to the necessary sexual and reproductive health services and information: 

First, the EU Gender Action Plan (GAP III) will be a key tool to promote the rights of women and girls around the world: I am particularly glad that the European Parliament strongly contributed to its development, calling for SRHR to be prioritised in its implementation. 

Secondly, we must seize the opportunity of 2022 as the European Year of Youth: if we are serious about making sure that all young people can reach their full potential and live healthy and self-determined lives, we need to start prioritising universal access to SRHR, leaving no youth behind. 

Finally, sexual and reproductive rights must be enshrined into the EU’s external policies as part of our cooperation with third countries, as well as within our direct work with civil society organisations and in multilateral contexts. The right to health of women and girls must become an essential part of our outreach to partners and I do hope that in future cooperation agreements with the African Union, this topic will become more prominent. The recent “Team Europe Initiative on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights in Sub-Sahara Africa” is a good step towards putting the issue on the agenda, and with its €60m initial funding, it provides a solid basis to which we must build upon. 

We must push for more and better access to SRHR because women and girls around the world rely on us. 

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