A Conversation with Lilianne Ploumen
Rep. Lilianne Ploumen is the former minister for Foreign Trade and Development of the Netherlands and was chairwoman of the Labour Party from 2007 to 2012. In 2017, Representative Ploumen launched the She Decides campaign, an international initiative to combat the Trump administration’s defunding of family planning initiatives around the world. Prior to her extraordinary political career, she was the director of Mama Cash, the oldest international women’s fund in the world, and the director of international programs at Cordaid, one of the largest international development organizations. She currently serves in the Dutch House of Representatives.
Conscience: You identify as a prochoice Catholic—from whom and how did you learn that conscience is the final arbiter in moral decision making and that it is possible to be a person of faith and exercise reproductive freedom?
LP: The idea that your own conscience guides your decisions definitely comes from my mother. I was raised in a Catholic family, and my mom comes from a very strong Franciscan tradition, so we were very much taught that you have to think about others before you think about yourself, and that you should really engage with how to be a good person.
The reproductive aspect doesn’t really come from my family, but I do believe the generation of my parents could think more freely about their own choices. I would not suggest in any way that my parents were prochoice, but they were pro-“making your own decisions” and trusting of conscience. That sense of the vitality of conscience, even if not directly applied to reproductive autonomy, was how I was raised.
Conscience: Does your Catholic religious identity matter to you—what is its value?
LP: I think it has meaning on two different levels. One is a very strong, almost cultural, respect I have for Catholicism because it’s the way that I grew up. I had a very large family, with aunts and uncles in monasteries. I sang in the choir, and I was even an altar server. The values that I have were very much formed by Catholicism. In my family, you had to be consistent, and that’s what I still feel: you have to be consistent. I cannot ask something from you if I don’t do it myself.
When I started working for Cordaid, a Catholic development and relief organization, I visited many countries where Catholicism has a more prominent position in the hearts and minds of people than it does in my country. That renewed my understanding of how important religion is for people. Religious people should be outspoken about what they see, so that teachings are not something that you only talk about within your own community. People have to really engage in the debates that are going on. In the Netherlands, you don’t see the bishops being very open about poverty in all countries or about human rights. I think they should be more talkative about justice issues, because people like to hear the bishops’ voice. Because they don’t do that, their very vocal antichoice and anti-contraception stances dominate the conversation about Catholic values.
Conscience: Why did you first become involved in politics?
LP: I’ve always been interested in politics, and, like many politicians, I was a student representative in school. I only became a member of a political party in 2003 after deciding it was the best way I could effect change. I worked for groups like Mama Cash, an international women’s fund supporting organizations that work for women, girls and transwomen around the world; I tried to influence the mainstream while remaining a bit outside. I then had a renewed understanding that if you want to change things then you might want to step in yourself. And so that’s what I did: I became the chair of the Labor Party. What I liked about that role was that I was responsible both for making sure the party kept its position and improved, but I could also take part in day-to-day politics. After four years of that, I stepped down, and then I was asked to become a minister. And now I have been elected to parliament, so I’m basically seeing Dutch politics from a variety of perspectives.
Conscience: As you reach the end of your five-year tenure as minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation in the Netherlands, how do you see the local and global political landscape? Should we be politically pessimistic or optimistic for the future?
LP: One trend makes me very optimistic: People understand that if you want to change things, the least you have to do is go out and vote. Many young people understood after the Brexit referendum that because they didn’t vote, they were stuck with an outcome they didn’t anticipate. In the United States, we’ve seen a renewed commitment to community organizing all around the country. You see people getting together, talking about politics and considering running for office at all different levels. I spoke with women who are working at Emily’s List, and that was amazing. And Emily’s List is great, but I want to get women elected to school boards—politics at a very local level. You see this trend in the Netherlands, too. We recently had the highest turnout in elections in maybe 12 years at more than 80 percent.
But there is another trend, about which I’m pessimistic. In many countries, the space for civil society is shrinking. There are new laws, rules and regulations focused on trying to keep people from organizing and being heard. These policies make it incredibly difficult for the world to engage, and so I think that’s a trend that we ought to be trying to conquer.
Conscience: You were director of Mama Cash and worked for the Catholic development agency Cordaid—what do you think is the greatest responsibility of donors in development aid?
LP: I think donors should be very sensitive to context and preferably leave as soon as possible. The work of both Mama Cash and Cordaid was very much rooted in local communities. You can imagine that for a local church in a village in the north of Uganda it might be frighteningly difficult to translate what aid workers have done into a specific kind of reporting that the development world requires. I think donors have a responsibility to assist people in making results more tangible for the work that they finance. That’s an area where there is a big challenge in the coming years.
Conscience: As minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, you boldly established She Decides—a fund and a movement to combat the Trump administration’s reintroduction of the global gag rule, a policy which bans organizations abroad from receiving American aid if they support a woman’s right to choose abortion. What is your greatest hope for this initiative in the future and what will success look like?
LP: I hope that the great momentum that we have now with She Decides can continue for the next three years while President Trump’s in office. I’m confident it will because we have almost 60 countries now—and more than three hundred million dollars in funding. We have millions of young people who have organized themselves, and all around the world we have supporters. I also hope that people will take the She Decides example as a way to try and influence these kinds of policies on a national level. That work will look very different for every country. For example, in Kenya, it would be to work with the government to make sure that within its own health budget there are more resources allocated for sexual and reproductive rights for women. But in the United States, it might be trying to lessen the impact of the global gag rule. In the end, She Decides is a global movement, and everyone can make it their own success.
Conscience: Why is abortion still a political lightning rod in politics around the world?
LP: The issue of access to abortion has been the battleground forever, at least long as we all can remember. At an individual level, you want to make your own decisions, but as a society you have to think about how we translate what our citizens want into a policy that works for everyone. On the other hand, we have had the Declaration of Human Rights and an international recognition that women’s rights are human rights since 1948. So, in a way, there’s nothing to debate about. But there is an alliance of conservatives that organize around this very debate. In the end, this alliance is about trying to control and disempower women. The real issue here is that women should have the right to decide for themselves. That’s what it means to be prochoice. It’s not about what choice you should make, but instead about supporting the ability to make a choice about bodily autonomy and healthcare in the first place.
The global gag rule now tries to say that we’re against choice, we’re against abortion. In reality, the policy will result in more abortions, more unsafe abortions and more maternal death. In terms of effectiveness, bans like this have always been very bad policy. In the Netherlands, we have sex education in schools, access to modern contraceptives and access to safe and legal abortion, and the rate of abortion is very low in our country. Some people say these policies lead to young people having sex all the time, but, in fact, the average age is going up. People can make their own responsible choices about their way of life, and we shouldn’t fundamentally distrust peoples’ ability to make their own decisions. That’s totally patronizing.
Since I took office, I have been working towards reproductive rights. We have a very strong group of likeminded people we work with, but in order to really get somewhere on these issues, we needed to reach out to the non-likeminded people. So I talked a lot to the Vatican, knowing that people there would not suddenly be prochoice, but also seeing that in this domain of women’s rights and the position of women, there might be issues that we feel the same about. The church hierarchy also doesn’t want girls to be married off at 11. They also condemn sexual violence. They also condemn domestic violence. So we’ve been looking to see if we can support each other in these areas. Of course, I would really love to see the Vatican take one step further and distance itself from the alliance that lobbies at the United Nations against women’s rights. As part of that group, the hierarchy misses opportunities to work with all these communities that condemn sexual violence and child marriage and, I think, this really hurts their image and their causes. Ultimately, it’s for the Vatican and the hierarchy to make strategic decisions, but I would like to see them strategize about this issue more and reflect on whom they should be teaming up with.
Conscience: What is your favorite holiday destination? Where does Lilianne like best to escape to?
LP: I love the beach, preferably in the western part of France, because it’s not only very nice but it’s quite nearby!
Conscience: What luxury item and what food and drink would you take to your desert island?
LP: What luxury item? A washing machine. I don’t have a dryer, and I don’t need that. But a washing machine is kind of essential. I would take eggs, a lot of herbs including coriander, lemons and, for practical purposes, many cans of beans. If I had eggs, beans, herbs and lemons, I could make eight different dishes with that.