British Member of the European Parliament Michael Cashman, who authored the text that aims to ensure that a human-rights-based approached is taken by the European Union in all its external actions, including the sexual and reproductive health and rights dimension. Photo by: Mark Weeks / CC BY-NC-SA

Members of the European parliament’s development committee voted Tuesday on a text — or opinion — on the issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the context of the EU’s development cooperation framework. 

Despite some opposition from social conservatives, the vote passed with a three-quarter majority and the text will now constitute an external chapter of the women’s rights committee report on sexual and reproductive health rights.

Authored by Michael Cashman, the text aims to help ensure that a human-rights based approach is taken by the EU in all its external actions, including the SRHR dimension. According to the British MEP, this means access for all without discrimination to voluntary family planning, safe abortion, contraceptives supplies and HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

“Today’s vote is an affirmation of where the parliament stands and its support for a really progressive set of policies,” Cashman told Devex in an exclusive interview just minutes after the session in Brussels.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Cashman:

What is your reaction to the vote that we’ve just seen?

When we’re dealing with fundamental issues like rights — women’s rights in particular — I’m always nervous ahead of the vote, because you don’t know how the opposition will fall against you. I’m relieved, but I take nothing for granted because I know that women’s reproductive and health rights in particular are under increasing attack from within the [European] parliament [and] from some external NGOs who — by and large — are religiously funded. And they’re also attacking the European Commission for the excellent work that it does. So I think that today’s vote is an affirmation of where the parliament stands and its support for a really progressive set of policies and thereby the support for the Commission. 

We’ve just seen a healthy majority — a two-thirds majority — in the vote just now, but you’ve previously said that anti-choice opposition is growing stronger, with gender selective abortions being used as an argument against SRHR. How will the EU and the member states counter this line of argument?

Well, we have to unpick the language, because the attack is no longer full frontal. The attacks are now much more subtle. So for example, [opponents] will put down an amendment against the issue of coercive abortion and you think “well no-one wants to be coerced,” but then you say “can you give me a definition of that?” and they’ve learned that you don’t give a definition. And therefore an organization or a project giving women information about rights that are available to them could be considered as coercing abortion. 

There was a pretty robust exchange of views in the plenary between me and a member from the [European People’s Party] on what’s called “gendercide” as a blanket approach to deny women the right to an informed choice. Because informed choice is what it’s all about … [then] people know that they can have a right to taking those decisions. So we’ve got to unpick the language to expose what the opposition is up to.

So in terms of the mechanics, how difficult was it to reach consensus?

Well, interestingly, the development committee is pretty progressive. I think we’ve won the argument that whilst we respect religion, we do not respect religious believers’ rights to impose those views upon others. So I think that by constantly talking to one another, having a respectful debate, is the only way forward. I get attacked — we get attacked — for being pro-abortion, but I’m actually pro-choice. I’m a great believer in taking decisions based on the information that you have.

Another ongoing debate is that surrounding the post-2015 agenda. The U.N. high-level panel report does contain a standalone goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women, as well as an illustrative health goal that includes a target on ensuring universal SRHR. Are you satisfied with the outcome of this report and with the performance of the panel?

It’s all about how these aspirations come into operation and about the implementation of principles. The fact that gender equality is central is absolutely right — we must always remember that women are a majority on this planet and also that over 250,000 women die every year because of unsafe abortions or unplanned pregnancies. So the HLP’s proposal is good. I’m not so happy with the [EU] Council — the Council has got to learn to speak with one voice, otherwise the EU will not be the force for good that it can be when the three institutions operate as one.

In terms of what the Commission and  Commissioner [Piebalgs] are doing … they come under intense and aggressive lobbying, daily e-mails questioning why they’re funding projects relating to a woman’s right to choose, access to contraception, medicines, healthcare, etc. But [both] courageously stand in support of women and I cannot praise them enough. 

Moving from policy to implementation and funding, the EU’s multi-annual financial framework has been agreed, while negotiations on the geographic and thematic programs, as well as the European development fund are ongoing. Do you believe that SRHR — and the social sectors in general — receive sufficient financial attention, given their status as contributors to sustainable development and poverty alleviation?

The contribution that these programs make — especially in SRHR — is the progressive element they bring into developing countries’ economies. Do they get enough money? No, the budgets are under attack, the HIV-AIDS programs are consistently under attack, but I’m afraid that these need to be our priorities. Without health, without access, economies will suffer. … So we in the parliament have got to make certain, when the divvying up of the money is done, that these programs are fully supported. 

Do you think an extra push now will mean that domestic resources can eventually play a stronger role?

Isn’t it reprehensible that 40 years after countries made a commitment to 0.7 percent of gross national income, I think only 5 countries have achieved it? It’s in our interest to continue our investment in the developing countries, but also we’ve got to look at post-2015 [targets] and apply them in our own countries. Unless we deal with corruption, tax evasion, good governance and other elements, we won’t collect the taxes that enable us to do our work. How can we lecture others if we don’t do it?

We’ve got to lead from the front. If they really want to stop people getting into leaky boats and going across the Mediterranean as illegal immigrants, the only way is to make conditions back home conducive to people staying there, working there, feeling that they belong there. And equally, if we want to defeat international terrorism, the way you do that is by giving people a sense of belonging, a job, a home, education and a future for their children.

A decent life for all?

Exactly, a decent life for all and that’s why the Commission document has been brilliantly timed. And leaving no-one behind — no-one means no one person left behind! Non-discrimination on all of the bases we operate here — sexual orientation, gender identity, women’s rights, ethnicity, belief, disability — is key, because that’s what a human rights-based approach is. But sadly, some countries interpret the universality of human rights for certain minorities in a very negative way. 

On the post-2015 process, will SRHR continue to be a part of EU language and that of the U.N. secretary-general’s report due at the end of this month? Will it be described as a cross-cutting issue or will it be ascribed standalone goals?

I don’t think the … report will be a problem. Ban Ki-moon has been absolutely explicit on a whole range of rights that hitherto wouldn’t have been pronounced by a secretary-general let alone repeated. We’ve got to ensure that pressure is kept up on governments so that how they vote is held to account.

In the European parliament, the [vote] today is a very strong message about where we want to go and it’s up to us as politicians to say things that perhaps the Commission and the Commissioners might find difficult. … Making sure we speak with one voice is key, but it’s not going to work if we compromise on the language. The language has got to be explicit and [the future framework] has to be standalone, with goals, with monitoring and evaluation. And in that way, we’ll get there. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing is. 

What would your message be to those civil society groups campaigning for SRHR issues as we enter into a crucial phase in defining and negotiating the future framework?

I think they do rather brilliantly already and I couldn’t possibly lecture them, but what I would say is that a lot of people — including EU-wide NGOs — think that the way to do your lobbying is to do it in the parliament. But it’s crucial that you take a kind of “blitzkrieg” approach where you lobby through your supporters to members of the national parliaments of all parties. Never make it a party-political issue — it’s a rights issue and rights must run horizontally through the serious mainstream political parties. So lobbying at national level is absolutely vital, then lobbying here [at European level], and then holding us accountable by how we vote, both in the Council as well as national and European parliaments. … And thereby you have good governance and the engagement of civil society, not only NGOs, but also your citizens.          

But rights themselves aren’t negotiable are they?

No, absolutely not. If you negotiate away a right, eventually you negotiate away your own rights. … These aren’t new lessons — history has been repeating them time and time again.

So we’re looking back, but we’re looking forward too? How confident are you that developing countries will accelerate their MDG progress before focusing on a new framework?

You know, if you’re not confident and optimistic, you should never enter into politics let alone public life because being confident and optimistic means that you believe you can win the battles — and these are battles. … To move forward to accessing programs, projects, budget support, etc. for post-2015, it’s conditional for a country to maintain and achieve its commitments to the MDGs. The two go hand in hand.

So you’ve won the battle today and you’re confident of winning the war?

Of course I’m confident of winning the war because I think that justice and goodness always come out in the end. And that light can be shone into those darker minds that seek to repress others. I’m always optimistic, but sometimes these are generational battles and you’ve got to have the courage to pass things on to the next generation — which is why I’ll be stepping down at the next election.

You have to have the courage to pass on, stand back and look at the human rights landscape with a very strong set of binoculars and a very loud megaphone, but have the courage to let go. 

From actor to politician, what are your next steps?

I have none. I want to stand there with a fork in the road and see which way I go. I might not go in any direction, because I’ve had the most amazing and privileged set of careers. Being able to do the work I love here and fight the fights that I believe in has been an incredible privilege and I would encourage anyone to go into European politics, so long as you’ve got the courage to ignore the press!

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    Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.