In the European Union, the European Citizen’s Initiative was set up with the aim of bringing the activities of the European Parliament closer to the citizens of Europe. If a petition can achieve 1m signatures from across at least seven member states, the European Commission, which devises common policies, is obliged to consider the proposal and a legal framework to allow it to happen.
One of the most successful of these ECIs achieved the requisite 1m signatures late last year under the tagline of “a beautifully simple step but could help save millions of lives.” But this ECI was anything but beautiful and threatened to endanger the lives of thousands of women worldwide.
As we wrote, when it first appeared in 2012 the ECI said:
The human embryo deserves respect to its dignity and integrity. This is enounced by the European Court of Justice in the Brüstle case, which defines the human embryo as the beginning of the development of the human being. To ensure consistency in areas of its competence where the life of the human embryo is at stake, the EU should establish a ban and end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health.
If successful the ECI had the potential to severely restrict human embryonic stem cell research within the EU. But more worrying is the impact that it could have had on the lives of women in countries in receipt of EU development aid; the countries where maternal mortality and morbidity are higher than those we consider acceptable within the EU, and where access to safe and legal abortion is a basic health need.
If successful it would have directly challenged fundamental rights of women and been in direct conflict with the aims of UN Millennium Development Goal five: to improve maternal health.
“One of Us”, the name of the campaign behind the proposal, was able to harness the infrastructure of the Roman Catholic Church, complete with an endorsement by Pope Benedict XVI, to gather signatures from across ten member states. Other Christian groups also back the campaign.
Weak legal basis
In early April this year the co-ordinators of this ECI had the opportunity to present their arguments to Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and Andris Piebalgs, the EU commissioners for research and development aid repectively. A month later the commission officially responded to the ECI and – thankfully for women’s and human rights – rejected the premises upon which it was based and declined to consider a legislative proposal that might give effect to it.
As noted in the response, the legal basis for this ECI was weak from the start. It purported to draw from the decision in the case of Oliver Brüstle v Greenpeace in defining the human embryo as existing from the moment of conception for the purposes of legal protection. This case required the court to consider how embryos are defined in a commercial setting for the purposes of patenting and intellectual property.
But this claim deliberately overlooked the fact that the decision in the Brüstle case was concerned solely with the issue of patentability. As such it specifically did not, and was not an attempt to, provide a precedent for a more wide-ranging definition of legal personhood or serve as a comment on whether human embryonic stem cell research is permissible or something that should be funded.
Europe’s very own ‘gag rule’
“One of Us” is modelled on a restriction, introduced by the Ronald Reagan in 1984, often called “the global gag.” This is a prohibition on organisations that receive US government funding from facilitating access to abortion services or any advocates for the liberalisation of domestic abortion policy. This restriction applies even if the organisation provides a broad range of sexual and reproductive health services and obtains its funding for abortion services from another source.
The “global gag” has been endorsed by every Republican president since Reagan and rescinded by every Democratic president. The gag applies in countries where abortion is legal (neither US nor EU development aid is used to fund access to abortion where the procedure is illegal). The impact of the global gag has been measured by several organisations including the World Health Organisation, the Guttmacher Institute, and Population Action International and, unsurprisingly, they’ve found that it has increased the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions because of the impact it has had on family planning and contraceptive care more generally.
It has also had significant and negative impact on the lives of real women in countries where access to safe abortion is a legal and necessary part of abortion care.
Campaigns like One of Us are not a “beautifully simple step” to saving millions of lives. They are moves intended to disadvantage and marginalise women; sadly often those most in need of assistance – women in developing countries are “one of us” and should be treated as such.
It also highlights the potential negative impacts for which the seemingly benign citizen’s initiatives, like popular petitions, can be co-opted by other interested groups. Importantly it is a mechanism that some believe will be used again in the furtherance of conservative aims.
It was always likely that this initiative would fail from a legal perspective, however, a primary objective was not success but the creation of “a new Europe-wide mobilisation of the pro-life movement.” It is for this reason that it’s important to pay attention to the success of the initiative – in its own terms even if it did not formally succeed.