Sexual and reproductive rights must be enshrined in EU Law

The European Parliament will vote this week on a resolution to include abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights at a time when abortion rights are under attack in parts of the EU and globally.
Activists from women's rights organisation Women's Hell march in a pro-choice demonstration in Warsaw on International Women's Day, March 8, 2024.

By Fred Matic and Neil Datta

Fred Matic (S&D, Croatia) is a member of the European Parliament and Neil Datta is the executive director of the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

10 Apr 2024

This year’s World Health Day on 7 April brought a stark reminder from the World Health Organization that people around the world face many preventable health risks, from air pollution to discrimination in access to health care. 

Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are another area where policies lag behind medical best practice, including in the EU. And, although the EU has a mandate to support national governments in public health policy, there is still a great deal of divergence between member states on this particular issue. 

The European Parliament will vote on 11 April to enshrine the right to abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. At a time when abortion rights are under attack in parts of the EU and elsewhere in the world, strong support for this resolution will send a clear signal to member states, reaffirming the importance of freedom of choice and gender equality. 

The work shouldn’t stop there. Inequalities persist in access to other essential SRHR services such as HPV prevention, undermining the EU’s shared commitment to health as a fundamental right. While member states bear the primary responsibility for shaping health policies, the European Union must also play a leading role in promoting SRHR standards. 

Last month, France became the first country in the world to make access to abortion a constitutional right. But elsewhere in Europe the picture is bleaker: research by the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) has found that several European countries regulate abortion care primarily through their criminal and/or penal code, while others subject women to forced waiting periods or exclude abortion care from their health systems’ financial coverage.  

The EPF’s research also found divergence between EU countries, and across Europe more broadly, on access to contraceptives and related counselling, fertility policies, and HPV prevention. In each case, strong performance by some countries showed that there are many examples of good practice that could be shared and replicated across the EU. 

For this, action is needed at the EU level. The European Union must foster collaboration, facilitate knowledge-sharing, and provide financial support to raise SRHR standards consistently across Europe and beyond.  

We have already come a long way. In 2021, the European Parliament adopted a report flagging SRHR as a gender equality issue as well as a health issue, and urging EU countries to guarantee these rights in law. This recognition marked a significant step forward in our journey towards a more equal European Union. Sexual and reproductive health was finally included in the European Commission’s work plan under the EU4Health Programme in 2021, and in the EU Global Health Strategy in 2022. 

The EU can also use its global influence and partnerships to promote SRHR around the world. By advancing SRHR initiatives in partner countries and strengthening funding and instruments for development programmes with SRHR priorities, the EU can support developing countries more effectively. 

During the next EU legislature, we should raise awareness about SRHR through dedicated projects and campaigns, available and affordable counselling, and promotion of evidence-based Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE). We should invest in research to address data gaps on equality and discrimination regarding contraception, abortion care, and maternal health services. Moreover, the EU should challenge regressive norms and laws that perpetuate inequalities both within and beyond its borders — and work for the decriminalisation of abortion. 

The road to universal health coverage based on the principles of equality begins with prioritising sexual and reproductive health rights. By encouraging cooperation among member states and adopting a rights-based approach, we can build a future in which everyone in Europe and beyond enjoys the full range of health rights.