Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe

Posted by Maria Codina on January 4, 2018 at 9:08 am



Sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to sexual and reproductive health, are intrinsic elements of the human rights framework and effective state action to guarantee sexual and reproductive health and rights is imperative.

Without it, some of the most significant and intimate aspects of our lives as human beings are at risk. Our ability to make autonomous and informed decisions about our bodies, our health, our sexuality, and whether or not to reproduce, is undermined.

In recent decades, considerable global progress has been made in the sphere of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and towards the elimination of related forms of discrimination and Council of Europe member states have long been at the vanguard of these e orts. However, notwithstanding important progress, women in Europe continue to face widespread denials and infringements of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Laws, policies and practices in Europe still curtail and undermine women’s sexual and reproductive health, autonomy, dignity, integrity and decision-making in serious ways.

Moreover, in recent years, resurgent threats to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights have emerged in some parts of the region. These have sought to call into question and erode longstanding commitments to gender equality and the universality of women’s rights. In some member states, laws and policies have sought to roll back existing protections for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, in particular through the introduction of retrogressive restrictions on access to abortion and contraception. Courts in a number of countries have also been confronted with legal challenges threatening women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. The backlash has also affected the work of many human rights defenders and health care providers working to advance women’s rights.

Meanwhile, harmful gender stereotypes, stigma and social norms regarding women’s sexuality and reproductive capacities continue to apply to many aspects of women’s lives. Violence against women and coercive practices in sexual and reproductive health care settings continue throughout Europe. Social opprobrium, shame and taboo are persistently associated with many facets of women’s sexual and reproductive lives and with certain forms of sexual and reproductive health care.

Although several European countries have now established sexuality education programmes of some kind, many of these programmes fall short of international human rights requirements regarding comprehensive sexuality education and the World Health Organization (WHO) Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe. Furthermore, while many European health systems are relatively strong, de cits and shortcomings persist across the region in the manner in which health systems are equipped to respond to women’s sexual and reproductive health needs. Data collection and financing in the field of women’s sexual and reproductive health remain insufficient. Women’s access to effective methods of modern contraception continues to be impeded by a range of affordability and availability de cits, information shortfalls and discriminatory policy barriers.

Although almost all member states have now legalised abortion on a woman’s request or on broad socio-economic grounds, a small number retain highly restrictive laws that prohibit abortion except in strictly de ned, exceptional circumstances. These laws have severe and harmful implications for women’s health and well-being. Most women in these countries who decide to end a pregnancy travel to another European country to obtain safe abortion services or undergo illegal clandestine abortion at home. Often in these countries even women who qualify under narrow exceptions for legal abortion care are confronted with serious obstacles when seeking access to legal abortion care.

Even in some of those European countries that have legalised abortion on a woman’s request, women still face barriers in access to safe abortion care. A number of member states have failed to adopt adequate regulatory frameworks and enforcement measures to ensure that women can still access legal abortion services in practice when medical professionals refuse care on grounds of conscience. Meanwhile, procedural barriers that affect women’s timely access to abortion care, such as third-party authorisation requirements, remain in place in a number of member states.

While many European countries now have the lowest rates of maternal death in the world, serious disparities remain with regard to access to maternal health care and failures to ensure adequate standards of care and respect for women’s rights, dignity and autonomy in childbirth also endure in several areas of Europe.

Each of these concerns, challenges, de cits and barriers has exacerbated or distinct implications for marginalised groups of women in Europe, including women living in poverty, Roma women, adolescents, women with disabilities, refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrant women. These and many other groups of women in Europe face intersectional discrimination on the grounds of sex combined with other grounds in the realisation of their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Additionally a range of barriers continues to undermine women’s access to justice and effective remedies for violations of their sexual and reproductive rights. In some countries, women have yet to receive redress and reparations for serious and systematic past violations of their sexual and reproductive rights.

This issue paper considers each of these concerns and challenges from a human rights perspective, against the backdrop of member states’ human rights obligations as enshrined in international and European human rights instruments and as elaborated and interpreted by human rights mechanisms. As widely recognised by human rights mechanisms, member states’ obligations to advance and protect women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are core components of their obligation to respect and guarantee women’s human rights and advance gender equality.

Although human rights mechanisms have repeatedly recognised that all human rights are relevant to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights they have also identified certain human rights as having particular relevance, including the rights to health, to life, to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, to privacy and to equality and non-discrimination. They have addressed the manner in which states are obliged to eliminate and reform relevant laws, policies and practices and take effective steps to respect and protect these rights, including by ensuring women’s access to comprehensive sexuality education; modern contraception; safe and legal abortion and quality maternal health care.

This issue paper is preceded by the Commissioner’s recommendations to all Council of Europe member states in the field of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Read the Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe.

Read the summary of the Issue Paper.