Supporting members of parliament to uphold sexual and reproductive rights

Marina Davidashvili, Head of Policy and Research at the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF)

The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF) brings together parliamentarians from across Europe who are interested in improving sexual and reproductive health care and who understand the importance of upholding sexual and reproductive rights. This work seems all the more important in light of the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, rolling back abortion rights in the US.

We spoke to Marina Davidashvili, Head of Policy and Research, about the work EPF does to support parliamentarians, mapping policies on issues like contraception and abortion across Europe, and their investigations of the funding of bodies promoting anti-choice, anti-LGBT and anti-equality views.

How would you describe the work EPF does?

EPF is a network of members of parliament across Europe who work on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) – all aspects of it, from maternal and child health, to abortion and contraception access. We use the Council of Europe definition of Europe, which is geographical and not limited to European Union member states. That includes countries from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

The way we work is through fostering cross-party consensus. Our members are not individual parliamentarians, they are all-party parliamentary groups in national parliaments and in the European parliament. The groups should ideally include all democratically elected parties, although this is not always possible. We work across the whole political spectrum and we try to ensure all regions are represented in our network. Currently we have around 30 all-party groups. Of course, every time there is an election, you start again almost from zero. It’s a never-ending advocacy effort. Thankfully, the all-party groups usually have a secretariat, sometimes a local civil society organisation or an assistant in the parliament and they do a great job of maintaining and increasing the membership of their groups.

We work in three main ways. First is the convening of parliamentarians. We organise events, and we bring delegations to significant meetings, such as the International AIDS Conference in Montreal later this month. It’s an opportunity for members to learn, participate in panels, and for conference attendees to talk with decision makers.

The second aspect of our work is legislative support. For example, if a member of a parliament is planning to put forward a proposal for a change in the law, they can request our help in reviewing their plans.

The third part of our work is our inhouse research, which may be what your readers would know us for; the policy atlases and the anti-gender research.

How does your work support parliamentarians in making change?

We work with parliamentarians who are already interested in SRHR. What they need is evidence, to make evidence-based policies. Our research is part of that evidence, but we also introduce them to experts from the big organisations working on these issues, like the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, and Family Planning 2030. We bring them around one table so that there is an exchange of information and parliamentarians understand the current burning issues.

We also have cross-European initiatives, so for example when abortion was being highly restricted in Poland, we brought our network to Warsaw and they issued a joint statement. This is parliamentary solidarity and this is also very important.

In terms of supporting parliamentarians to stand firm against anti-choice forces, we’ve been working on unmasking them, showing who they are, how they are funded, and making clear that it’s the work of a network, not ordinary concerned citizens. What these groups are doing is using human rights language to mask very extreme ideas. These are not new ideas, they are racist ideas, and extreme conservative ideas about a woman’s place in society. These are old ideas masked with nice language that hides the real intentions.

When an MP has the evidence they need, what can they do with it?

Because parliamentarians are elected representatives, they are public figures, so the first thing is to start the debate.

One good example is from our contraception atlas. This scores each country, based on a number of criteria, to show how well they are doing in terms of contraception policy and provision. Countries are then colour-coded, in green, yellow or red. Finland was coloured yellow, which is a medium score, but they saw that their neighbour Sweden had a better score, so they asked us why.

We told them one reason is that in Sweden contraception is reimbursed for young people, so it’s free of charge, and in Finland it’s not. They were very surprised, because they thought they were doing well on contraception policy and gender equality, but there is always more you can do. One parliamentarian who was particularly interested wanted to enact a law. The law didn’t pass, but it created a debate and the issue became known in society. People started talking about it and how things could be better and this filtered through to the municipality level. Over time, more and more municipalities started to cover contraception for young people. Today, even though there is no law for the whole country, so many communities are covering contraception for young people at a municipal level that most young people in Finland now live in places where it’s covered. That’s one example of how it works: awareness is raised, there’s a debate in society, then changes begin.

It’s often the case with the atlases we produce that you have this positive regional competition – why is my neighbour better, what can I do?

Europe is one of the most progressive continents in the world on many of the issues we work on, but our research helps to show that it’s not as good as we sometimes think. Contraception is not an issue just for the global south. We can do much better. If you look at our atlases, only around half of the countries are coloured green. Why can’t we have all green?

What goes into the production of the atlases?

We currently produce four European atlases: on contraception, abortion, fertility and cervical cancer prevention.

The idea is to represent something very complicated in a simple visual way to make it understandable. Every health system in each country is designed in a different way and it’s hard to compare them. The atlases give a visual tool to compare complicated data, so that parliamentarians don’t have to read hundreds of pages of research.

The methodology is called hierarchical tree. We work with stakeholder groups to define the criteria we want to compare. For the contraception atlas, there are three initial branches: access to supplies, access to consultation and access to information.

Then we decide as a group what elements we should look at – the components of successful access to contraception in each of these areas. Each element is given a score, so you can input all the data from a country and end up with an overall score.

It can take a long time for change to happen. But the contraception atlas is the oldest of our four atlases – it’s been around for five years – and I’m happy to say that about 20 positive legislative changes have happened since it was launched. It’s a tool that requires several months of work every year, but it can create change across the whole continent.

In 2021, we published a feature reporting on a hearing in the European Parliament where EPF presented research into anti-gender funding. What’s been the reaction to that research?

That research had a lot of resonance in the media. We’re aware of over 100 articles in different media outlets across Europe that featured this anti-gender research.

For the first time, there was an encompassing study about the funding behind the anti-gender organisations. Our report identified US$ 707.2 million of funding coming from the US, the Russian Federation and Europe in the past 10 years. A very worrying trend: the funding has quadrupled in the past decade and obviously with four times more funds you can fund much more damaging activities than before.

Since then, several of our members invited my colleague, Neil Datta, to speak about it in their parliament.

Whenever there is an attack on any issue that we work on – a move to restrict abortion, for example – there is always somebody behind it. We try to establish whether they are in the anti-gender networks that we research and we help parliamentarians to better understand the dynamic. This is not about what is sometimes called ‘concerned citizens’, it is an orchestrated, well-funded movement, that has dark objectives for our society.

Since Neil spoke in the European Parliament, we have had briefings in national parliaments once or twice a month. We meet with the members who request to see us, sometimes just five or six people, but they are the ones who can best spread the word among their peers.

Through raising awareness with parliamentarians and through media coverage, this research is doing its educative work.

For example, several anti-choice organisations were trying to gain observer status in the European Parliament in Brussels and in Strasbourg at the Council of Europe. These organisations don’t support the core values of the European Union or the Council of Europe and it’s very important that they don’t have a seat there. When we alert parliamentarians, they don’t get this status.

It's so important that the powers behind the anti-choice, anti-gender movement are brought to light. The rights we have should never be taken for granted. They can be lost, and we have to be vigilant.

This feature first appeared in the July 2022 edition of the Sexual Health and HIV Policy Eurobulletin.