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The Council of Europe Undermines Women’s Human Rights

On October 7, anti-abortion members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) successfully hijacked a resolution intended to regulate conscientious objection, turning it on its head in order to serve their ideological agenda.

The original resolution recognized that conscientious objection in European healthcare facilities is becoming more common. As a result, many women are deprived of access to lawful medical care, especially reproductive health services such as abortion and contraception.

The original resolution called on Council of Europe member states to clearly regulate the practice of conscientious objection by requiring doctors to inform patients about all treatment options, provide referrals if they objected to a procedure, and perform services regardless of conscience in cases of emergency.

A small number of very vocal and extreme anti-abortion MPs, however, embarked on a campaign of misinformation about the content of the original draft. These MPs were remarkably dedicated to pushing their agenda through and ultimately succeeded in passing numerous amendments and a final resolution that undercuts the original.

The final resolution states that any person or institution should not be held legally responsible for refusing to perform an abortion, even in emergency situations. This flies in the face of fundamental access to justice and due process principles, as well as basic ethical obligations to prevent harm and provide emergency medical care regardless of one’s conscience, as recognized by the World Health Organization and many countries.

In addition, the final resolution implies that the right to conscientious objection can be exercised by an institution. This contravenes European Convention on Human Rights case law, which notes that the right to freedom of conscience is by its very nature an individual right and therefore cannot be exercised by an institution.  

The resolution also implies that the interests of the fetus take precedence over the pregnant woman’s right to life and health. This contradicts human rights principles as recognized by the European Court of Human Rights, which has noted that any interests of the fetus are limited by the pregnant woman’s rights and interests. UN human rights bodies as well as PACE itself have called upon states to liberalize restrictive abortion laws and remove barriers to to safe and legal abortion services.

The consequences of not regulating conscientious objection are illustrated by a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights that revolves around the tragic and unnecessary death of a pregnant Polish woman who was refused treatment for colon disease because doctors feared it would harm her fetus.  None of the doctors would refer the woman to someone who would treat her, and her symptoms grew worse until she miscarried and eventually died. The case was brought on behalf of the woman’s mother by the Center and its local partners.

This resolution sends a deeply troubling message to European countries and to countries around the world that, according to the representative body of Europe’s human rights system, women’s health and lives are disposable.