As a pioneer in the struggle for women’s self-determination over their own bodies and the decriminalisation of abortion, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel wants to speak up in the debate about abortion terms and waiting times.
Since the 1970s, the university, with sister university ULB, has been campaigning for the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy. Advocates such as Willy Peers, Pierre-Olivier Hubinont and Jean-Jacques Amy were, among many other healthcare actors, active in the university hospitals of VUB and ULB and in family planning centres, where abortion was performed in optimal conditions. In 2015, VUB awarded an honorary doctorate to Willy Peers and Lucie Van Crombrugge for their work in the creation of the Belgian law of 1990 that partially decriminalised voluntary termination of pregnancy.
We are therefore resolute in participating in the current abortion debate, from this historical perspective and as an institution of science, research and education, and advocate for the importance of scientific insight and information gathered from high-quality multidisciplinary research. We fully support the parliamentary initiative to further relax abortion laws, based on the scientifically based and recently published expert report of the “Interuniversity, Multidisciplinary and Independent Committee charged with the study and evaluation of practice and legislation on voluntary termination of pregnancy”. This group of academic experts was appointed by the rectors of Belgium’s seven universities. Their report is based on more than a year’s work by seven experts, assisted by 28 colleagues in four working groups. It involved 17 doctors, of whom 13 are gynaecologists, four lawyers, six psychologists and eight experts from the fields of philosophy or social sciences. They represent the scientific consensus on this initiative that updates and strengthens the fundamental right of women to self-determination in the field of reproduction.
One does not have to agree with this legislative initiative, as everyone has the right to freedom of expression. However, it should not be overshadowed by the use of false arguments to defend ideological or political positions.
It sickens us every time false information is invoked in the debate. Especially when it is used to manipulate or mislead public opinion, as is unfortunately the case today. Thus, we read in the press completely incorrect claims about the experts’ conclusions. Claims that hospitals sell foetal tissue to the pharmaceutical industry are pure fantasy. The same applies to claims that “Belgium recognises the right of inheritance of a child from the moment of conception”; that to terminate a pregnancy after 14 weeks, a “trocart” or metal pin is inserted “into the neck and head”, analogous with “a technique used in abdominal medicine”; that research into an “artificial womb” adds an entirely new dimension to the abortion debate; that there is “evidence in the scientific literature that pain perception occurs as early as the beginning of the second trimester”, allowing “the foetus to theoretically experience more pain than a newborn baby”. None of these statements is consistent with reality.
Fake news and alternative facts, spread eagerly and without nuance via social media, have serious consequences. Anyone could observe the pernicious nature of fabricated news stories in other recent social and political debates. Its deliberate communication is something we find deplorable and should be highlighted. Indeed, on this issue, the spreading of fake news hinders our ability to have an honest and objective debate on termination of pregnancy. As humanists, we must remain alert to the spread of disinformation and the disregard for evidence-based science. We must be aware of a progressive fragmentation in society and remain committed to a world based on science and universal rights. The drastic rollback of abortion rights in the United States reminds us that women’s rights are never acquired forever. We are also concerned about the human rights situation closer to home, such as in Poland and Hungary. We therefore call for this debate to be conducted calmly and correctly.
Every woman should have the right to decide her own body and fate. That does not mean we deny the ethical dilemma of termination of pregnancy. A balance must always be sought between a woman’s right to control her own body and the protection of the foetus. And that is exactly what the Interuniversity Committee, with its thorough scientific evaluation in the field, has done, more than 30 years after the Lallemand-Michielsens law. Abortion laws must be amended now.
Opinion piece written by:
- Jean-Jacques Amy, emeritus professor, VUB
- Jan Danckaert, rector, VUB
- Dirk Devroey, dean, Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, VUB
- Anne Verougstraete, gynaecologist, VUB-Dilemma