Emboldened Opposition and a Galvanised MovementWhat the End of Roe v Wade Means for Abortion Around the World
The overturning of the seminal 1973 ruling by the US Supreme Court has been met with a mixed reaction by pro-abortion activists globally, reports Sian Norris
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“The decision to overturn Roe v Wade is extremely grave in the impact it will have across the US,” Leah Hoctor, senior regional director for Europe at the Centre for Reproductive Rights, told Byline Times. “The retrogressive nature of the decision is completely unprecedented in the global arena, in terms of the move to remove a constitutional right for abortion that has existed for 50 years.”
The announcement that the US Supreme Court had decided to overturn Roe v Wade – the 1973 case that allowed for nationwide access to safe, legal abortion – sent shockwaves around the world.
Since the decision was published, nine states have implemented abortion bans and a total of 26 states with a female population of 64 million are expected to ban or severely restrict abortion in the coming months.
In the decades since Roe v Wade, 55 countries have introduced policies improving abortion access, including Spain, Ireland, Argentina, Kenya, Romania, Nepal and South Korea. Only four have introduced new restrictions on abortion in that time – the fourth being the US.
The implications of the decision go beyond US borders.
Since Roe v Wade was introduced, America has occupied a dual role of being both a beacon of progress and freedom, and a world-leader in opposing access to safe, legal abortion – with opposition groups using their wealth and influence to attack reproductive healthcare in the US and around the world.
“The decision overturning Roe v Wade opens the home front in the US and Europe to autocracy’s war on democracy,” Monique Camarra, co-host of the Kremlin File podcast, told this newspaper.
The unprecedented nature of this decision now risks undermining progress on abortion across the globe. But there is a flipside too. The renewed focus on the fragility of human rights – with women and girls’ rights often a canary in the backlash coalmine – could galvanise progressive movements and law-makers to take positive action to protect abortion rights from further attack.
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An Emboldened Opposition
When news of Roe v Wade being overturned hit the headlines, anti-abortion groups and think tanks celebrated.
Heartbeat International – a crisis pregnancy service accused of spreading disinformation about abortion – called it the moment it “had been praying for”. Radical-right think tank The Heritage Foundation, which has multiple links to the UK Conservative Party, said it gives states “the power to fix America’s extreme abortion laws and enshrine protections for the unborn in law”.
Across the Atlantic, extremist anti-abortion group CBR UK said “the UK is next” and Right to Life UK called it the “overturning of an unjust law”.
“The main impact we are going to face is an emboldened opposition,” Martin Onyango, associate director of legal strategies for Africa at the Centre for Reproductive Rights, told Byline Times. “And an emboldened opposition movement is dangerous anywhere in the world. The opposition groups are getting bolder and braver. We expect them to intensify trying to influence other countries, including in Africa.”
In Kenya, where Onyango is based, abortion is protected as a constitutional right but is only permitted when there is a recognised threat to the mother’s life or health, or in emergency situations. It remains restricted by colonial era laws in the penal code. A recent constitutional court case, won by Onyango and his colleagues at the Centre, saw the High Court affirm the right to abortion under the constitution. The case involved a minor and a healthcare worker in the town of Malindi being arrested, after the healthcare worker provided post-abortion care.
That the US was able to overturn abortion as a constitutional right after 50 years concerns Onyango, not least because the means that the anti-abortion movement used to win its battle could potentially be replicated elsewhere.
“Roe v Wade as a judicial precedent and the setting up of abortion as a constitutional right has been used by Kenya and other countries,” he said. “In the Malindi case, we brought in the same principle reasoning that supported Roe v Wade – that forcing women to carry an unwanted pregnancy amounts to a violation of their rights including right to privacy.
“So when Roe v Wade falls, it means the reasoning for constitutional positions in countries like Kenya has fallen. That opens up a direct challenge to those constitutional provisions – although in our case, a referendum is required to change the constitution.”
In Europe, there are fears that opposition groups, including from the US, will use the overturning of Roe v Wade to push forward their own agendas. Between 2009 and 2018, US anti-abortion groups spent at least $81.3 million in Europe.
“For decades, we’ve seen US fundamentalist organisations and the Christian-right working in the European region,” said Leah Hoctor. “There are active anti-abortion organisations in the European region who will seek to capitalise on this, and who will seek to grow support for their beliefs and their anti abortion activism.”
The majority of countries in Europe allow women access to safe, legal abortion, but there are exceptions.
Last January, Poland extended its already draconian abortion bans to include a ban on terminations in cases of foetal anomaly, while in Malta the procedure is banned in all cases. In Italy, where abortion is permitted, there has seen a concerning backlash against a woman’s right to choose, with increasing numbers of doctors refusing to perform abortions and populist leaders such as Matteo Salvini blaming abortion for causing a “demographic winter”.
Room for Hope
While the overturning of Roe v Wade will embolden anti-abortion actors, the global trend when it comes to reproductive rights is a positive one.
In June, Germany overturned a Nazi-era law that had prohibited the advertising of abortion services. France, the Netherlands and Spain have also taken steps to improve access to reproductive healthcare – despite fervent opposition from Christian fundamentalists.
“The decision out of the US Supreme Court could actually galvanise the potential for even increased progressive reform across European countries,” Leah Hoctor told Byline Times. “We are calling on European leaders that support reproductive rights to put this support into action now, and to really take steps to bring European laws and policies into line with World Health Organisation guidance.”
Progress on reproductive rights is also happening in the Global South. In Kenya, the Malindi case was “a great milestone, because gradually we are chipping away at the restrictions we have, when it comes to abortion care in this country,” said Onyango.
Meanwhile, in Latin America, more and more states are liberalising abortion laws in what has become known as the ‘green wave’ movement due to the green scarves, flags and sashes worn by pro-abortion activists.
In 2020, Argentina legalised abortion, while abortion is now available on request to any woman up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy in Mexico City and the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Colima, Baja California, Sinaloa, Guerrero and Baja California Sur. Colombia legalised abortion on demand up to 24 weeks in February, while Chile is planning a referendum on making abortion a constitutional right.
“The green wave across Latin America is a movement that has had so much impact in terms of systemic change in that region,” Hoctor added. “It’s very important to underline that the global picture is a very hopeful one, and a very progressive one.”
Additional reporting by Heidi Siegmund-Cuda