It’s been a while since a report has last caused so much uproar in the European Parliament as Edite Estrela’s on sexual and reproductive health and rights did (A7-0306/2013).1
Since 2002 the Parliament has not dealt with the issues addressed in this critically important account: services in the area of sexual and reproductive health, legal termination of pregnancy and extensive sex education. Discussion has degenerated into a battle between so-called ‘pro-lifers’, who deny that women have a right to abortion, and pro-abortionists.
In the week before the European Parliament vote (22 October 2013), all German MEPs received about 500 emails a day, in which citizens opposed the report, the right of abortion and compulsory sex education. According to our research, this email-campaign was promoted by the European Citizens’ Initiative ‘One of Us’ and the ‘Civil Coalition’, which are close to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) . Ultimately, their campaign was successful: The vote was a disaster. A majority of 351 MEPs voted for referring the report back to the Women’s Committee. Almost all the ultra-conservative, conservative and liberal MEPs argued for this.
The arguments most put forward by the pro-life supporters are: abortion is murder and so has to be prohibited, and sex education leads to a premature ‘sexualisation’ of young people and therefore should not be compulsory.
It should be understood that the European Union has no legislative competence on these issues. Questions concerning the right to abortion and sexual education are the responsibility of the member states. Sex education, however, is in part an EU competence, as Art 168 AEUV (health care) states that ‘Union action, which shall complement national policies, shall be directed towards improving public health, preventing physical and mental illness and diseases [...]. Such action shall cover the fight against the major health scourges, by promoting research into their causes, their transmission and their prevention, as well as health information and education, [...]’.
With regard to the Council of Europe, Article 11 of the European Social Charter establishes that healthcare counselling and information are tasks of the member states. Sex education is seen as a way of fostering the health of youngsters. If a member state of the Council refuses to deal with this issue, it may be regarded as being in breach of the European Social Charter. 
At an international level the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) stipulates that the signatory states have to guarantee the following rights: the equal right to decide freely and responsibly on the number of their children and their age disparities and access to the information, educational structures and means to allow the exercise of these rights (Art. 16). In the general recommendations the states that are parties to the Convention are asked to ensure that women will not have to resort again to illegal abortion methods due to a lack of services for fertility control.
Sex education is an important area of education and social policy. It provides information enabling young people to enjoy their sexuality to the fullest, both physically and emotionally. Despite the opinion of many critics, sex education does not lead to premature sexual contact between youngsters and thus does not increase the number of teenage pregnancies. On the contrary, there are even indications that sex education in fact postpones the time of the first sexual encounter.
In almost all member states sexual education is compulsory by law (except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom); however, its quality varies greatly, resulting, for example, in a varying rates of teenage pregnancies.
In Ireland, for instance, 90 % of the population support sexual education in school, while pro-life organisations as well as the Catholic church remain deeply opposed to it. Oftentimes the subject is treated together with biology or religious education. According to the constitution parents have the option of preventing their children from attending sex education classes.
In Italy there is no legislation regulating sex education. Some schools offer their students sex education as ‘minimal programme’ with few sessions. However, there are private organisations and family planning centres trying bridge this gap.
In Poland the situation is not much better: sexual education is of poor quality. In a survey among teenagers one third stated that they had never attended class. And those two thirds who did criticised its low quality. Apparently, class attendance is voluntary, and parents are allowed to deny their children access to sex education. The same is true for the United Kingdom – parents can use an opt-out clause and pull their children out of sex education. The result: The UK has the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe. In the Netherlands the number of pregnancies per 1,000 teenagers is only a fifth of the rate in the UK.
This makes the rejection of the Estrela-report on sexual rights in the European Parliament all the more disastrous. The report called for the provision of information on modern family planning within sex education and for making this instruction mandatory for all students of elementary and secondary schools.
The second hotly debated point of the report involved the demands related to termination of pregnancy. That this was put forward as the main reason for rejecting it recalls the toughest battles of the women’s movement for the right to abortion. The report asks the member states to not prevent pregnant women from traveling to another member state to have an abortion. Moreover, it emphasises that member states need to regulate the refusal to facilitate/perform abortion due to conscientious objection on the part of members of the key professions (medical doctors, etc.).
In January 2013 a case made headlines in Germany when a young, possibly raped, woman had been refused medical examination by two Catholic hospitals on the grounds that this could lead to an abortion or morning-after pill and that they had instructions of not carrying out examinations like these.
In almost all EU member states abortion is legal or at least decriminalised (except in Poland, Malta and Ireland). Nonetheless some of these countries tend in practice to deny women the rights granted by legislation. In Italy for instance, which legalised the termination of pregnancy in 1978, fewer and fewer doctors actually carry out abortions. When so doing they invoke their conscience and thus complicate access to a safe termination although legislation has specifically provided for it.
The case of 14-year-old Polish girl Agata gained sad notoriety in 2008 when she could find no doctor who agreed to carry out the abortion she sought after being raped, even though the law was on her side. In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the state of Poland had degraded Agata and treated her cruelly. According to the judges, Poland as a state of law had to ensure that the laws passed by the legislature are not merely ‘illusory’ but that these right can actually be claimed successfully.
The vote on the Estrela-report in the European Parliament shows that the conservatives are on the march and trying to advance their outdated family concepts and values.
Men and women must have the right to decide in an informed and responsible way for themselves on issues regarding their sexual and reproductive health. Sex education is a prerequisite for preventing HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. The right of access to safe and legal methods for the termination of pregnancy must not be denied through regulatory or practical obstacles. Global experience shows that a repressive abortion law never reduces the number of terminations but only endangers women’s health by forcing them to accept degrading conditions in other countries or to resort to backstreet abortionists. Those who really want to fight discrimination against women need to take a stand against the outdated role models of the pro-life advocates.
translated by tanja Mikolasch
 Karolina Beaumont and Marcia Maguire, ‘Policies for Sexuality Education in the European Union’, Directorate-General for Internal Policies, European Parliament, January 2013, p. 34
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 18 December 1979
 Definition according to the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network, in: Beaumont and Maguire, op. cit., p. 7.
 UNAIDS, Impact of HIV and Sexual Health Education on the Sexual Behaviour of Young People: A Review Update, 1997, p. 20.
 Beaumont and Maguire, op.cit., p. 10.
 Ibid., pp. 21ff.
 Richard Garner, ‘The Big Question: Why Are Teenage Pregnancy Rates so High, and What Can Be Done About It?’, The Independent, 17 February 2009
 Edite Estrela, op. cit., paragraphs 41 and 43.
 Ibid., paragraph 30.
 Ibid., paragraph 35.
 Jörg Diehl and Anna-Lena Roth, ‘Katholische Kliniken und Vergewaltigung: Abweisung in Gottes Namen’, Spiegel Online, 17 January 2013