European lawmakers demand action on anti-abortion misinformation

openDemocracy investigation sparks cross-party European legislators' call for action on “deliberate disinformation” of vulnerable pregnant women.

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan Francesca Visser
12 February 2020, 3.19pm
Belgian MEP Hilde Vautmans: "We see that conservative powers want to turn the clock back"
Flickr/ALDE Group. CC BY-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved

A growing number of European lawmakers from across the political spectrum are calling for action against “deliberate disinformation” targeted at vulnerable women following an openDemocracy special investigation.

This week, openDemocracy revealed that some ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ around the world discourage women from using contraception and say, incorrectly, that abortions increase risks of getting cancer or becoming abusive towards children.

More than thirty European legislators wrote today to the European Commission’s health commissioner Stella Kyriakides and the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatović demanding “firm action” against crisis pregnancy centres that disseminate misleading information on abortion.

Those calling for action include MEPs from Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party in France, several leading Green and Liberal MEPs and John Mann, a former Labour MP appointed to the UK House of Lords by former prime minister Theresa May.

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The “propagation of misinformation” by crisis pregnancy centres “should be regarded as an ethical violation that undermines women’s health”, says the letter, which was signed by twelve MEPs and nineteen national MPs.

openDemocracy sent undercover reporters posing as vulnerable pregnant women to some of these centres in eighteen countries across five continents. At several centres they were shown graphic images and videos and were told incorrectly that having an abortion could increase their risks of getting cancer and mental illnesses.

The centres that openDemocracy investigated are all affiliates of the US group Heartbeat International, which has ties to the Trump White House. In Latin America, a second US group, Human Life International, supports the same network as Heartbeat, which includes centres in Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina and Costa Rica.

Heartbeat affiliates also exist in a number of European Union states including Italy, Spain and Croatia, as well as in Romania and Ukraine.

In response to questions from openDemocracy, Heartbeat said “we stand firmly by our Commitment of Care” – a standards document that commits its affiliates to accuracy in their information and advertising. “Different countries have their cultures and varied ways of communicating; the fact remains that abortion carries risks to women,” it added. “With love and truth, our goal is to help the client understand abortion more fully, so that she can truly make an informed decision.”

But European lawmakers said that openDemocracy’s investigation had revealed “a global coordinated project of deliberate disinformation aiming to introduce additional obstacles for women who seek to terminate their pregnancy”.

These centres often have religious ties and “target women in vulnerable and precarious situations who may not have any other option,” says the politicians' letter, adding that some facilities have also received support from governments.

openDemocracy's research found that Spain and Italy are among the countries where crisis pregnancy centres have received public funding.

In Italy, where openDemocracy found more Heartbeat affiliates than anywhere else outside the US, there are more than 400 of these centres. Dozens operate inside public hospitals, women’s shelters and family counselling centres.

“These organisations managed to infiltrate public institutions thanks to the lack of [government] resources,” said Irene Donadio, head of partnerships and strategy at the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Europe.

Belgian Green MEP Petra De Sutter, a medical doctor and chair of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive rights, said: “I strongly condemn all attempts to disinform women with an unwanted pregnancy, in order to persuade them no to get an abortion. They are very vulnerable at that moment in their life.”

She condemned the use of “deception and disinformation” against women considering abortions and said this is “not only morally wrong but a threat to democracy and the rule of law”. She said: “We as politicians must act against these practices with all political and legal tools we have!"

“This is an extremely worrying phenomenon,” added another Belgian MEP, Hilde Vautmans. “We see that conservative powers want to turn the clock back.”

“As as liberal I will not concede a single millimetre,” she said. “For us, the right to self-determination is of primary importance and women's freedom of choice over their own bodies is an important part of it. Every woman is free to decide over her own belly and we will have to actively ensure that it stays that way.”

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