Interviewed by Hanna Müller
Petra De Sutter is not only a Member of the European Parliament, but also a professor of gynecology, and former head of the Department of Reproductive Medicine at Ghent University Hospital. Her political credo: Do not take the progress on women’s rights for granted. Learn more about our new Member in this interview!
Prior to your career in European politics, you worked as a gynaecologist and fertility expert. What made you take the leap into politics and how has your unique background influenced your political activism?
Since 1987, I have been a gynaecologist and a specialist in reproductive medicine. I went through purely scientific work in the lab, through the clinic and then ethics, which finally brought me to politics. I was a member of ethical committees and advisory boards giving advice to the government, public authorities, and ministers; they did not always follow my advice and I realized that decisions are, in reality, made at the political level.
My work has always been directly related to environmental topics, such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals: a group of chemicals that damage hormones and can lead to infertility, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. In addition, I have always been intrigued by social justice, solidarity, human rights, discrimination issues, equality, and as a gynaecologist obviously gender equality. If you combine these topics, you have half of the program of the Green Party.
As a scientific expert, in 2014 I joined the list of candidates for the European Parliament elections. A little later, I became a candidate for the Senate with a half-time mandate, which allowed me to combine my political interest with my work at the hospital and the university. Finally, I ended up in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is an institution older than the European Union (EU) itself. After those first exciting steps into politics, I am at the European Parliament today working on the internal market and consumer protection and also on health, environment and social rights, which brings me back to the protection of workers against chemicals. As you can see, it has been a logical career path.
You are the first Green Chairwoman of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Affairs (IMCO). Could you tell us more about this Committee and the current Green agenda?
A current area of concern of this committee is consumer protection. There is a lot of spam, unfair prices, and faked or unsafe products coming from outside the EU that you can buy on Amazon or other platforms. All these emerging technologies like artificial intelligence must be human-centred, which means that there needs to be accountability behind every application, be it self-driving cars or medical diagnostics.
We also work on topics such as consumption, goods production, circular economy, waste management, and the right to repair. For example, we want to reduce plastic and electronic waste, introduce universal chargers for cell phones or other electronics, and increase the lifespan of the products we use. Citizens should be able to decide whether they want to buy a television set for 1000 € with a lifespan of ten years and another one for 300€ that will break in two years.
We also support the circular economy which is currently emerging. The commission has already proposed a few topics in the framework of the Green Deal such as the zero-CO2 emission target for 2050.
You defend sexual and reproductive health of girls and women and are part of the group MEPs for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (SRHR). How can we empower girls and women in this area, and what are some key policies you are fighting for?
Working on reproduction issues for more than 30 years, this is a crucial subject for me. Everybody should have the right to decide for him or herself how many children to have, with whom, when and how. It is a matter of human rights, much broader than just sexuality and reproduction, and it touches especially upon women’s rights.
Empowering girls and women all starts with education. We must make sure that girls go to school, that they are not married when they are 13 and have three children by the age of 18. We must ensure that women are independent and can take care of themselves.
There is still a lot to be done, even in Europe because of the ideological battle and the counter reaction that we have seen growing in the past years, which is now very active and organized and goes back to the traditional norms and values of men. This patriarchal idea is indeed currently growing in Europe, mainly in the politically extreme right movements, but also in other very conservative reactionary groups that are politically present at the European level and getting support from the US and Russia.
That current movement is a growing concern and we must be aware. At the UN level, language is changing: what we did 25 years ago concerning international treaties on women’s rights would not be possible today. Many countries have taken a very conservative discourse. Even the EU, which has always been a champion in that domain, is now more and more silent because the EU speaks with one voice at the UN level. Under the influence of countries as Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, there is a lot of pressure not to be too progressive and advanced on topics like SRHR.
Everybody has the right to decide for him or herself
how many children to have, with whom, when and how.
2020 has been a year of unprecedented turmoil and change. How can we keep conversations focused on ecological transition and a socially just society amidst the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you optimistic for the future?
Yes, I am, and I will tell you why: even the European Commission and most member states in the EU declared that we will have to consider the ambitions of the Green Deal to recover from the current crisis. If your house burns down, and you must rebuild it, you will not rebuild it with the materials and methods of 30 years ago when it was first built. You will build it with an eye towards the future, in a sustainable way. This is a message that most member states, industries, and entrepreneurs understand.
Now is the time to make decisions respecting the green transition. It is an opportunity, not a problem. This Green Deal should be the core, the skeleton, the guideline for economic recovery.
The same holds for digitalization. It is very important for the European Commission to go digital. If we have learned anything from the crisis, it is that we must invest, give people reliable internet solutions and think about remote work in a more structured way for the future.
Now is the time to make decisions respecting the green transition.
It is an opportunity, not a problem.
You are a strong advocate for the LGBTQI community in Europe. Do you think that European politics are becoming more inclusive and tolerant?
I am not positive; but I am an optimist. One the one hand, there are a lot of things heading in the right direction: two years ago, Ireland decriminalized abortion. On the other hand, Poland is making access to abortion more difficult or even tried to ban it during the COVID crisis. There are still many Eastern European countries where domestic violence is tolerated; and Hungary is not teaching gender studies at their universities anymore.
Sometimes countries move forward, and sometimes others try to move backwards. The overall outlook is still encouraging. However, my main message is “let's not fall asleep.” The world needs to understand that maybe one day things could change for the worst. Who knows what political forces will be dominant in the future? If political forces further to the right take majority, they are likely to immediately attack a lot of treaties, liberties, and rights that we have been building for the last 30 years.
So never think that our rights are permanent and that we can rest secure and go to sleep!
Let's not fall asleep: the world needs to understand
that maybe one day things could change for the worst.
As well as your extensive work in European politics, you are still a professor of gynaecology at Gent University in Belgium. How do you juggle your many different roles, and more importantly, how do you make time for yourself?
I have learned to understand what is important and what is not and if I believe in something, I will go all the way. But I also know my limits, both physically and mentally. Occasionally, I need some time off, take some quality time with my partner, be out in the nature, playing the cello, meditating and I have been doing yoga for years. Meditation brings a lot of order to my thoughts.
I am very privileged to do things that give me energy and that bring a sense of responsibility to my life. I live in the here-and-now, leaving the past in the past, and what happens tomorrow for tomorrow.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I do not think about great achievements or ambition. I hold a lot of degrees and prizes, but it is all very relative. I understand that tomorrow everything can be gone, and everybody has forgotten about you.
I just want to do what I believe in and inspire those around me. If I can help, give answers, or tell someone where to turn for help, that is an achievement. That is what I have been doing as a doctor with my patients, every couple, man or woman. Getting a card with a picture of their baby makes me happy. That is my passion, my vocation. I am trying to do the same in politics.
If I can help, give answers, or tell someone
where to turn for help, that is an achievement.