Human rights, conscientious objection and service provision – a conflict or not?

By Lisa Dezauer, Social Platform Intern

On 1 October I attended an interesting event in the European Parliament: “Religion, Human Rights and a Secular Europe – Can faith and freedom co-exist?” organised by Global Interfaith & Secular Alliance (GISA), Catholics for Choice and our member ILGA-Europe, to discuss how religious values and human rights influence and impact each other.

The hottest topic was about the conflicts that can arise between religious values and the provision of reproductive health services. Jon O’Brien, the President of Catholics for Choice highlighted the great expertise of faith-based organisation in providing services and their trust by locals. He argued that it is crucial that faith-based service providers first and foremost advocate for the people they serve, “if a religious service provider for instance is not willing to share contraceptive methods, then maybe, just maybe, the service provider should not work on the topic of HIV.” This conflict was highlighted repeatedly, and opinions in the room were split. Pierre-Arnaud Perrouty, Executive Director at the European Humanist Federation, stressed that it is wrong to claim special rights on the basis of conscientious objections, because service providers may impose their own choice onto the person in need. Mr Perrouty urged for conscientious objection to be regulated and separated from services. Lorenzo Zucca, Professor of Law and Philosophy at King’s College London agreed that in law there should not be much space for service providers to make individual claims on the basis of conscientious objection. Ann Furedi, Chief Executive Officer for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, found it important for service providers to act in line with their conscience and sensibility, because leaving decisions up to rules and regulations only can be dangerous. Her argument was also supported by Dennis De Jong, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Co-Chair of the Parliament’s Intergroup on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Another discussion focused on how religious values may influence laws and politics of a country, resulting in human rights violations, especially on issues such as LGBTI rights and reproductive health and rights. Tanja Fajon MEP, Chair of the Socialists & Democrats’ (S&D) working group on extremism, populism, nationalism and xenophobia, stated that because of organised religious groups’ attempts to influence politics, more and more religious groups are labelled by other MEPs as “extreme religious groups”. Religion therefore has to work within the framework of law and not the other way around, concluded Erica Howard, Associate Professor of Law at Middlesex University.

An additional aspect highlighted was the power dynamics and imbalance between faith-based organisations and non-faith based organisations, in particular in terms of their influence on politics. Pierrette Pape from the European Women’s Lobby gave examples of situations in Member States where “the combination of anti-feminist and extreme religious views is threatening women’s human rights.”

Sophie ‘T Veld,MEP, Vice-Chair of ALDE  and Chair of the Platform for Secularism in Politics, stated that in principle the EU institutions are neutral, although when it comes to ethical choices in practice, it’s not so simple. She refers to the Parliament’s report on the situation of fundamental rights in the European Union and upcoming work on the ethical dimension of EU policies.

Evelyn Paradis, Executive Director of ILGA-Europe concluded that while human rights might not be perfect and may need to be improved, they are an incredible place to start; they create a legal framework that can be used to hold politicians and governments responsible.

On the question of “can faith and freedom co-exist” many speakers and participants answered wholeheartedly “yes”. As Ms Paradis said: “there is no ‘either-or’ between religion and human rights, but we have to find a way for religion and human rights to enrich each other.”

See also ILGA-Europe’s research paper on “The right to freedom of religion or belief and its intersection with other rights”.