Sexual and Reproductive Rights: The EU Keeps Moving

Francesca Mele
Call for progress in SRHR Source: Council of Europe

The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in 1994 in Cairo, Egypt was welcomed as a ground-breaking initiative, promising to enhance women’s rights. The idea was to guarantee universal access to sexual and reproductive rights. 179 governments, 11,000 participants from governments, UN specialized agencies and organizations, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, media – all of them came together to discuss the relationship between population and development. 

Equality meant empowering women; a result not only beneficial per se, but one which also concerned sustainable development. Complementary to this discourse was the focus on reproductive health, defined as:

A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, […] Implicit in this last condition are the right of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice”.

Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1994, para. 94.

Why are we talking about a Programme of Action that dates back to more than 20 years ago?

ICPD, Cairo, 1994 Source: UNFPA

Because the ICPD; the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995); the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979); the Millennium Development Goals before and the Sustainable development goals after, constitute a powerful source of guidance for the change we want to achieve. However, what has been done so far leaves room for improvement.

To do more and do it faster was also the goal expressed during the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 in 2019. At the 25th anniversary of the ICPD, the governments of Kenya and Denmark, and UNFPA, stated the will to intensify their political and financial efforts in an action that was summarized as “three zero”: zero unmet need for family planning information and services, zero preventable maternal deaths, and zero sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls. To address the three zeros and the broader ICPD agenda, the Summit focused on five themes, among which we can find universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

EU Moves Forward: The Report

On 24th June 2021, with 378 votes in favour, 255 against, and 42 abstentions, the Members of European Parliament (MEPs) adopted the resolution: “Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health”. 

The resolution states in clear terms that sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is “an essential element of human dignity and is intrinsically linked to the achievement of gender equality and combating gender-based violence”. 

(See Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health, para. C)
Landmark resolution adopted by European Parliament on sexual and reproductive health and rights Source: EPF

SRHR, according to WHO, is an umbrella term. Its meaning covers a full range of issues that include:

Sexual health (as the right to see bodily integrity, privacy, and personal autonomy respected);

Sexual rights ( concerning sexual orientation and gender identity);

Reproductive health (as to decide whether, with whom, and when to be sexually active; to have safe sexual experiences);

Reproductive rights (as services and support necessary for family planning).

(See Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health, para. B)

“In particular, sexual and reproductive health rights are fundamental women’s rights which should be enhanced and cannot in any way be watered down or withdrawn”, thus MEPs invite the Member States to promote and safeguard the right of  “informed choices concerning SRHR, to ensure the right to bodily integrity and personal autonomy, equality, and non-discrimination, and to provide the necessary means to allow everyone to enjoy SRHR”.

(See Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health, para. C)

Crucial Factors to Guarantee SRHRs

The report mentions particularly six different fields on which the actions of Member States should focus to guarantee the enjoyment of, and universal access to, SRHRs. They are:

  1. Access to safe, fair, and circular menstrual products for all, mentioning the reusable menstrual products and disagreeing with the so-called tampon tax.
  2. Comprehensive sexuality education benefits young people. That not only comprises right to universal access to scientifically accurate, evidence-based, age-appropriate, non-judgemental, and comprehensive sexuality education and information, but also the harm caused by stereotypes and taboos about menstruation, and by misinformation.
  3. Modern contraception as a strategy for achieving gender equality, intended moreover as removal of social and financial barriers in resorting to accessible modern contraceptive methods and supplies.
  4. Safe and legal abortion care anchored in women’s health and rights, in which it has been stated the abortion must always be a voluntary decision based on a person’s request, given of their own free will, and the Member States’ role in decriminalizing abortion and removing the barriers to legal access to it.
  5. Access to fertility treatments, “regardless of their socio-economic or marital status, gender identity or sexual orientation” (in “Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health“, para. 39).
  6. Maternity, pregnancy and birth-related care for all.

Lastly, in this resolution, MEPs stress the cruciality of SRHR as a pillar of gender equality, democracy, and the elimination of gender-based
violence. Thus, they invite the Member States to cooperate and come together, to establish concrete good practices and a uniform action to address the challenges that this field entails.

  • What are the most impeding factors in access to sexual and reproductive rights?
  • How is your State enhancing equal access and enjoyment of those rights?
  • Do you believe that European recognition of the right to abortion will (re-)open the discussion within the governments, and among them and citizens?

Suggested Readings

European Parliament, Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the EU, in the frame of women’s health, P9_TA(2021)0314, 24 June 2021,
Tatev Hovhannisyan, 25/06/2021, European Parliament adopts ‘historic’ report on abortion and women’s rights in Open Democracy
European Parliament, EU countries should ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health, 24/06/2021
Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995

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Sexual and Reproductive R…

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