A mother with her newborn in Ethiopia. Maternal health is under threat from a European citizen’s initiative, and parliamentarians from Austria and the Netherlands offer their opinions. Photo by: Gates Foundation /  CC BY-NC-ND

The immense potential for women in the developing world to build futures for themselves, their families and their communities is well documented.

Every additional year a girl spends in secondary school boosts her earning potential by between 15 percent and 25 percent. And when they do begin to earn, women generally invest 90 percent of their income on their families.

But in order for women to be these builders of futures, they must be healthy. And women are exposed to a major potential threat to health that men are not — pregnancy.

Whereas in most rich, developed countries, medical support is such that sports injuries and lifestyle diseases are more common than maternal death, for many women in the world, pregnancy may still be life-threatening. Indeed, almost 800 women in the developing world die every day during pregnancy and childbirth — many as a result of unsafe abortion.

The frustrating and saddening thing is that the vast majority of these deaths are preventable. This is why the international community designated maternal health as a standalone Millennium Development Goal — and why the European Union contributed $120 million to maternal health in 2012.

EU funding under threat

However, this EU funding may be threatened by an initiative called "One of Us." This initiative aims to halt all EU funds for any activities that involve the destruction of the human embryo.

Proponents claim that this can include EU development aid for maternal health, since addressing this issue can — on occasion — lead to a need for the provision of abortion services. The effect would be to stop EU funding to safe and legal abortion services and activities that create awareness of these legal services.

The initiative could also have a severe impact on other areas that benefit from maternal health funding.

On the ground, abortion-related services are usually interlinked with other services — including providing contraception, blood transfusions and sexuality education. These services are usually provided by the same organizations, and many of them receive their funding from the EU.

Mobilizing signatories

The mechanism being used to advance this campaign is the European Citizens Initiative — a new procedure allowing EU citizens to organize and collect 1 million signatures to request the European institutions to take action in any given policy area.

Close scrutiny of the initiators and supporters of the initiative reveals them to be almost exclusively ultra-conservative, religious — both Catholic and U.S.-funded evangelical — organizations.

These organizations are attempting to impose their personal religious beliefs on policies governing the general public — or in this case, women in developing countries — regardless of whether or not those affected by the policies share the same religious beliefs.

Having lost the battle against women’s rights in Europe — 25 out of 28 EU member states today have liberal abortion laws — those behind the initiative have had to look for a different way and a different part of the world in which to promote their ideology and advance the anti-choice agenda. And they are attempting to harness the EU — specifically its development policy — in order to do so.

A tragic denial of reality

We can agree with the initiative’s signatories on one thing: We all want to see the fewest number of abortions possible. However, the way in which the campaign wishes to pursue this aim is not based in reality and — rather than reducing it — would result in a great deal more suffering.

The initiative believes that once safe and legal abortion services are denied to women, these women will simply carry their pregnancy to full term. But this belief completely ignores the evidence of what happens in abortion-restrictive jurisdictions and is predicated on a tragic denial of reality.

Indeed, it is based on the same form of magical thinking that believes gay people can be “re-educated” to be straight, or that abstinence is a realistic form of contraception for most people. It also completely ignores the rights of women and denies them a free choice.

Restricted access to abortion

Highly restrictive abortion regimes do not equate to lower abortion rates. For example, in 2008, the abortion rate was 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America — regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries.

The rate was 12 per 1,000 in western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds. And women in European countries that do have restrictive abortion regimes have the option of travelling to neighbouring countries where abortion is legal.

Women have always had — and will continue to have — abortions.

When women are denied access to safe abortion services, they will either travel to a place where safe and legal abortion is available, or procure an unsafe abortion. Since this initiative targets the world’s poorest women, the only option for them will be the latter — accessing backstreet abortion practitioners or attempting to terminate the pregnancy themselves.

More than 20 million women — the vast majority of them in poor countries — resort to unsafe abortion each year, usually involving the use of sticks, wire hangers, poisons or inflicting physical trauma. An estimated 47,000 women die in the process — and 5 million require urgent medical attention.

When access to abortion is restricted in a country, centers providing safe abortion services are replaced by clinics full of women suffering with appalling life-altering injuries. Few who visit these clinics will subsequently deny the importance of access to safe abortion in the world’s poorest countries.

The only proven way to reduce the number of abortions is through the availability of modern means of contraception, the provision of family planning and sexuality education. And yet, the One of Us initiative has the potential to endanger EU development funds to these very areas.

Following the U.S. precedent

Those behind the initiative have not plucked the idea out of thin air. They are closely following a policy favored by Republican-led U.S administrations, which ban federal money going to international groups that perform abortions or provide abortion information.

This ban — known as the Mexico City policy — was most recently implemented during the George W. Bush administration as a sop to the U.S. religious right. The legal focal point for One of Us is Grégor Puppinck, director general of the European Centre for Law and Justice, an organization founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, a U.S. Christian televangelist.

Empirical evidence from the World Health Organization, suggests that the Mexico City policy is associated with increased abortion rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

Contrary to international consensus

There is an international consensus on abortion, which states that where abortion is legal, it should be safe. This was agreed by 179 governments — including all EU member states — at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.

The One of Us initiative therefore seeks to undermine this international consensus. The initiative is also is totally at odds with EU’s longstanding development aid policy. As one of the leading international actors supporting family planning and sexual and reproductive health, the EU has a responsibility to stand up for these rights. Furthermore, it has obligations to the ICPD process and to support developing countries to achieve the MDGs.

EU aid policy has saved the lives of millions of women and can be considered one of the greatest achievements of the Union.

We know the potential for women to be catalysts for change in the developing world. We know for them to achieve this change, they must be healthy. We know that family planning and reproductive health services — including the availability of safe abortion — is essential to ensuring women’s health. The evidence for this is clear and overwhelming.

However, from the days of the Bush administration, we also know what would happen if the One of Us initiative were to be implemented — an increased abortion rate.

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She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Sophie in 't Veld

    Sophie in 't Veld has been a Dutch member of the European Parliament since 2004 for the D66 party, part of the ALDE group. She is current vice-chair of the committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs — LIBE, a member of the parliamentary committee on women’s rights and gender equality and chair of the parliamentary working group on sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV/AIDS. Previously, she was the ELDR group’s secretary general at the Committee of the Regions.
  • Petra Bayr

    Petra Bayr is the Social Democrat Party — SPÖ spokesperson for global development and a member of the Austrian parliament since 2002. In 2012, she became Vice President of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development and is a member of the advisory group on HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health with the Inter Parliamentarian Union. Bayr is also a founding member of the Austrian Platform Against Female Genital Mutilation.