How will U.S. abortion ruling impact other countries?

by Emma Batha and Diana Baptista | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 1 July 2022 11:02 GMT

A woman raises her first during a protest in support of abortion rights held by Amnesty International and feminist collectives after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dobbs v Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision, outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Mexico June 29, 2022. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan

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The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade will have repercussions from Africa to Latin America, say women's health advocates

  • Roe v. Wade will echo around world, say experts

  • Anti-abortion campaigns energized by ruling

  • Landmark decision likely to drive fundraising boost

By Emma Batha and Diana Baptista

LONDON/MEXICO CITY July 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to revoke a woman's right to abortion could threaten efforts to liberalize laws in other countries and fuel calls to roll back progressive legislation, reproductive rights experts say.

They warned that the court's bombshell ruling on June 24 would embolden anti-abortion groups and lawmakers in Africa, Latin America and beyond.

It could also hurt funding for sexual and reproductive health services in developing nations, rights experts said.

"When America sneezes, the world catches cold," said former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, chairwoman of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH), which is backed by the World Health Organization.

The Supreme Court's reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide is expected to effectively end access to terminations in about half of U.S. states.

Here are some ways it could also impact other countries:

  1. Increase funding to anti-abortion groups

The U.S. ruling will give anti-abortion groups worldwide "a massive confidence boost" and be used to leverage funding, said Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices, which provides sexual and reproductive healthcare in 37 countries.

Shaw said many anti-abortion groups operating in Africa were supported and partially funded by U.S.-based organizations and private U.S. donors.

Paula Avila-Guillen, executive director of the Women's Equality Center, which supports reproductive rights organizations in Latin America, said the ruling had already emboldened anti-abortion groups.

"This is worrying because they will try to attack some of the victories we have achieved," she said.

Colombia, Argentina and Mexico have recently lifted abortion bans in what has been called the "Green Wave" movement.

Reproductive rights experts said U.S. and European anti-abortion groups were setting up "crisis pregnancy centers" in Latin America and Africa. These centers often suggest that they perform abortions, but in reality try to stop women having them.

Powerful anti-abortion groups include U.S.-based Heartbeat International, which supports crisis pregnancy centers in the United States and abroad; CitizenGO, founded in Spain but funded partly through U.S. donations; and 40 Days for Life, which started in Texas and operates in more than 60 countries. 

Shaw said a quarter of MSI programs - including those in Malawi, Mexico and Uganda - reported that opposition to abortion was being driven from outside the country.

Some MSI programs have also seen a rise in "mystery shoppers" - activists posing as clients who try to trick staff into offering abortion services in places where it is restricted.

Even in countries where abortion is legal, the ruling is likely to fuel harassment of abortion providers and women seeking terminations, she said.     

  1. Threaten efforts to reform laws

The U.S. ruling could energize opponents of abortion in other countries, stymieing efforts to ease bans and even leading to the unpicking of new laws.

Avila-Guillen said Mexico, which decriminalized abortion last year, was a particular concern due to its proximity to the United States and because some of its 32 states had not yet amended their penal codes.

She also warned that extreme right-wing political groups had redoubled their efforts to stop the spread of the "Green Wave" reaching countries like Dominican Republic, Honduras, and El Salvador which retain draconian bans.

Evangelical churches, which have seen rapid growth in Latin America and wield increasing political clout, were also pushing for total bans on abortion, she said.

Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who rose to power with strong support from evangelicals, took to Twitter last week to condemn a decision to let an 11-year-old rape victim have an abortion.

In Argentina, the U.S. ruling was welcomed by libertarian lawmaker Javier Milei, who is likely to run against the country's pro-abortion president, Alberto Fernandez, in next year's election.

Evelyne Opondo, senior regional director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), urged extra vigilance against moves to erode reproductive health rights in countries that have made recent progress.

She said it was crucial to strengthen training with the police and hospital staff to ensure they were not influenced by anti-abortion rhetoric, understood the law, and did not harass  abortion providers.

African countries that have recently eased abortion restrictions include Kenya and Benin.

In Malawi, PMNCH said the U.S. repeal could stall efforts to pass legislation to allow abortion when a woman's health was at risk "and women will continue to die as a result".

The ruling could also hurt efforts to expand access in Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Senegal, MSI said.

A 2015 bill to legalize abortion in Sierra Leone has yet to be signed into law amid pressure from religious groups.

Lawmakers in Liberia are debating a similar bill.  

  1. Decrease funding for sexual and reproductive health

MSI's Shaw said countries that receive large amounts of U.S. aid money may deprioritize maternal health care in general for fear of jeopardizing their funding by being seen as pro-choice.

"The ruling will have a chilling effect. We expect to see increased lobbying against passing policies supportive of sexual and reproductive health and rights," Shaw added.

"It's going to really deter governments from talking about these issues, prioritizing these issues and investing funding from other sources."

U.S. overseas funding for sexual and reproductive health cannot be used for abortion services under what is known as the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act.

Pro-choice groups fear the Supreme Court ruling will also hurt efforts to repeal the amendment.

  1. Destabilize a global shift towards abortion access

MSI's Shaw described the U.S. ruling as a "massive curve ball" at a time when the overall global trend was towards increasing access to abortion.

Around 60 countries have expanded rights in the last 30 years. Only a handful have moved in the opposite direction including Poland, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.

"We cannot lose sight of the progress that is happening all around us," said Opondo.

In Latin America, all eyes are now on Chile, which holds a public referendum in September on a new constitution that enshrines a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

In Europe, France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has also backed a parliamentary bill to add abortion rights to the country's constitution.

Related stories

U.S. abortion curbs force women to travel to Mexico 

U.S. Supreme Court ruling: demand for abortion pills set to soar 

U.S. abortion war spotlights women's risk from online tracking 

(Additional reporting by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Sonia Elks. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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