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Abortion: bishops cannot ignore international law

Following French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to include the right to abortion in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, COMECE[1] has issued a statement in which it affirms its opposition. It is of course free to do so. However, by stating that “there is no right to abortion recognised in European or international law”[2], the European Bishops’ Conference founds its statement on a wrong understanding of international law. We would like to point out important developments in international law in recent decades, of which the Bishops’ Conference is apparently not aware.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requires States Parties – including all members of the European Union – to “eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning”. This provision means that states must ensure prompt access to family planning services in particular, and to sexual and reproductive health in general. Furthermore, it is well established in international law that violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, such as, inter alia, the criminalisation of abortion, the denial or delay of safe abortion and/or post-abortion care services, the forced continuation of pregnancy, and the abuse and ill-treatment of women and girls seeking sexual and reproductive health information, goods and services, are all forms of gender-based violence.

UN specialised bodies have also clarified that the failure to provide sexual and reproductive health services, such as abortion, discriminates against women. The realisation of women’s right to health requires the removal of all barriers to access to health services, education and information, including on sexual and reproductive health. This means, among other things, that measures must be taken to ensure that women are referred to other health care providers in case of conscientious objection.

The affirmation of the right to abortion by the European Union would therefore be a major step towards the effective realisation of gender equality, which is one of its founding principles.

[1] The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union

[2] See