The Matic report: MEPs... who will trust science? | Andrea Dibben

There cannot be a commitment to the fundamental right to gender equality without a commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights

MEP Frederic Matic
MEP Frederic Matic

A few months ago, when the MEP Roberta Metsola took her COVID vaccine, she posted a statement on her Facebook page urging everyone to “trust science”. In a comment on her post, to which she did not reply, I stated: “I hope you trust science when the time comes to vote for the European Parliament Report on the situation of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in the EU.”

Well, that day of reckoning is nearly with us. The science on sexual and reproductive health is unequivocal as evidenced by decades of research so it will be interesting to observe who of our MEPs will trust science when it comes to this issue. There is no question whatsoever that SRHR are fundamental to people’s health, to economic development, to gender equality and to the wellbeing of humanity.

Unfortunately, in Malta, progress in this area has been consistently stifled due to a persistent and pervasive unwillingness to address SRHR openly and comprehensively. We do not know very much of what is going on because research in this area is scarce, but from the little we know, we can safely conclude that the situation is dire. For example, we have one of the highest rates of teenage births in the EU, and we have the highest number of young people in Europe who do not use contraception.

There are no financial schemes to subsidise contraception, no community-based family planning services, and our sex education both in schools but even more so with adults, leaves very much to be desired.

When it comes to sexual and reproductive violence against women and girls, we have not even scratched the surface to uncover the suffering that many have experienced and continue to experience. And of course, even though women and girls have abortions daily in Malta, we remain the last nation in the EU that criminalises women and does not allow the procedure to take place safely and legally, irrespective of the circumstances.

So where does the Matic report come in?

This European Parliament report authored by MEP Frederic Matic, is the first report specifically dedicated to SRHR in almost 10 years. As a report it reaffirms SRHR as human rights, an integral part of health, and intrinsically linked to gender equality and combating gender-based violence.

It tackles the whole range of SRHR including comprehensive sexuality education, access to contraception, abortion, fertility services, sexual and gender-based violence.

The report highlights the barriers, further exacerbated by the pandemic, that especially women and other vulnerable groups still encounter in accessing sexual and reproductive health services.

It makes concrete recommendations to the Commission to promote best practices and include SRHR issues in relevant policies and funding instruments; and to Member States to remove all barriers and guarantee access to the full range of services for all.

For Malta, it comes at an opportune time considering the minister of health’s recent promise to revise the National Sexual Health Strategy.

Locally, some have slammed the report since the responsibility for defining health policies and systems rests with Member States and lies outside the competence of EU institutions. However, SRHR are intrinsically linked to several policy areas in which the EU is competent including health, gender equality and non-discrimination, combating gender-based violence, and fundamental rights.

For instance, when it comes to public health, according to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (Articles 6 and 168), the EU should support the Member States’ actions and offer guidance and best practices. Furthermore, The European Pillar of Social Rights confirms the right to timely access to affordable, preventive, and curative health care of good quality.

The new EU4Health programme has reaffirmed this commitment with one of its main objectives being the strengthening of disease prevention and health promotion. Various EU policies such as the EU LGBTI Strategy and the EU Youth Strategy include a focus on sexual and reproductive health. Through the Gender Equality Strategy, the European Commission has also committed to address gender aspects of health, including sexual and reproductive health.

There cannot be a commitment to the fundamental right to gender equality without a commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The European Gender Equality Institute of the EU will be addressing SRH in its 2021 Gender Equality Index and has tackled SRHR issues when reviewing the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. One of the main objectives of the Gender Equality Strategy is also to prevent and combat sexual and gender-based violence.

Comprehensive sexuality education that addresses gender inequality in intimate relationships and supports the development of non-violent relationships from an early age is crucial to fulfil this objective. The denial of access to safe and legal abortion has been rightly recognised as a form of gender-based violence by the European Parliament in the 2017 Resolution on the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention further supporting the EU as being competent to address this area as well.

Recently, a local anti-choice group has claimed that the ‘right to abortion’ does not exist because it is not included specifically in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter does not spell out the right to open-heart surgery, the right to cancer treatment, or the right to be attended to by a doctor in an emergency either but everybody would agree that every citizen has a right to these interventions.

Various treaty monitoring bodies such as the UN Human Rights Committee, the CEDAW Committee, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner and the CRC Committee have affirmed that restrictive abortion laws violate a range of human rights, including the rights to health, life, privacy, freedom from gender discrimination, and freedom from ill-treatment. These rights are all affirmed in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Indeed, through the affirmation by European Commissioner Helena Dalli earlier this year, the European Commission reminded Member States that “when making use of their competences, [they] must respect fundamental rights, as they are binding on them by virtue of their constitutions and commitments under international law”.

This report has widespread support in the European Parliament so at this point, what remains to be seen is who of our Maltese MEPs will be on the right side of history.

Who is going to ‘trust science’, uphold human rights and ensure full commitment to gender equality? And who will continue to perpetuate ill-health, inequalities, and breaches of rights for the sake of political expediency?