Will the world abort women's rights after death of Roe v Wade?

Abortion rights activists carry signs during a 2022 Women's March with the theme “We Demand Our Rights” in anticipation of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. October 8, 2022

Abortion rights activists carry signs during a 2022 Women's March with the theme “We Demand Our Rights” in anticipation of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. October 8, 2022. REUTERS/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

What’s the context?

The fallout from the death of Roe v Wade is seen rolling right around the world

  • U.S. abortion ruling ricochets around world
  • Women's rights now seen at greater risk
  • Domino effect from Africa to Europe

PATTAYA CITY, Thailand - Women and girls around the world will suffer a knock-on effect from the U.S. decision to roll back abortion rights, experts say, predicting a global clampdown on hard-won female freedoms.

From access to abortion to voting rights, equal pay to equal status, women from Africa to Asia to Europe are expected to feel the fallout of the U.S. decision to reverse Roe v Wade.

“You have heard the term that when the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold,” said Jade Maina, executive director of Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health, a health advocacy group based in Nairobi.

“This is what we are anticipating.”

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She spoke as healthcare experts and advocates for women gathered in Thailand for a global family planning conference where the U.S. high court ruling was a key topic of debate.

“Most of the time, the U.S. is seen as progressive and is seen as the leader, and if the leader is going backwards, so does the people following,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at this week's meeting.

The Supreme Court's June ruling could restrict women’s health services, drive up rates of maternal mortality and influence laws in countries where reproductive policies are in question, according to attendees from more than 125 nations.

The top U.S. court overturned women's right to an abortion nationwide - a move that will ricochet well beyond the world of pregnancy and outside of U.S. borders, they said.

First off - money, with health funding now under threat.

The United States is unrivaled in its financial clout as the world’s largest donor to family planning and reproductive health services, averaging about $600 million a year in funding, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit.

The court ruling will bleed into healthcare policy, too.

“What the U.S. does often has global repercussions, whether it’s positive or negative,” said Samukeliso Dube, the South Africa-based executive director of FP2030, a global family planning advocacy group.

Nor will it stop with issues around pregnancy, she said, citing high concerns about its impact on wider female rights.

“It’s about the right to work, it’s about early marriage, it’s about control… Where does it stop?”

Huge blow to women's rights

When the U.S. Supreme Court decision was handed down, the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, called it “a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality.”

In its wake, 13 of 50 U.S. states have banned or severely restricted abortion access, and another 10 are expected to make similar moves in coming months, according to the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization.

Some ramifications - intended and otherwise - will take time to drip down, said Gilda Sedgh of the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive rights organization.

But she said its influence might well slow a liberalization of abortion laws in Latin America or the rollout of services in Northern Ireland, where abortion is legal but hard to get.

Women participate in a protest to mark the International Safe Abortion Day in San Salvador, El Salvador September 28, 2020

Women participate in a protest to mark the International Safe Abortion Day in San Salvador, El Salvador September 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Women participate in a protest to mark the International Safe Abortion Day in San Salvador, El Salvador September 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

'Global gag rule'

Clues to other consequences can be seen in the effects of the so-called global gag rule that bans U.S.-funded groups working abroad from discussing abortion, the experts said.

The rule has flipflopped since the 1980s, dependent on the U.S. politics of the day.

It requires groups working overseas to accept restriction or reject it and lose funding, and it has forced the shutdown of clinics and services reliant on U.S. aid in dozens of countries.

Under Republican President George W. Bush, research published in The Lancet from 26 African countries found the global gag rule had led to a 14% drop in modern contraception use and a 40% rise in abortions, most of them likely unsafe.

After President Donald Trump reinstated the rule, healthcare services to poor and marginalized women were slashed by up to 42% among the more than 50 healthcare projects in 32 countries overseen by the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

In Kenya, the effect of the gag rule under Trump was “chilling”, Maina said.

Shuttered clinics meant no reproductive health care - but also curtailed treatment for common infant diseases, she said.

“Services went from being very available to very scarce and only for pay,” she said.

Democratic President Joe Biden repealed the global gag rule soon after taking office in 2020. The next presidential vote, which could pick an anti-abortion president, is two years away.

A key legal decision banning abortion-related criminal prosecutions in Kenya earlier this year could be affected by the new U.S. position on abortion, Maina said.

The ruling by a Kenyan high court cited Roe v Wade in its legal reasoning but since the June rollback, a conservative Christian group has filed an appeal, she said.

And if Kenya does follow suit and restricts abortion, "what we'll see is increased maternal mortality," she added.

Abortion is permitted in Kenya in cases of rape and if the woman’s health or life is at risk.

Horn of Africa

The fate of proposed abortion law reform could be at stake in East Africa, where six countries have been working on a reproductive health bill in the region’s Legislative Assembly since 2017, said Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins, head of PAI, a U.S.-based organization of reproductive rights advocates.

Opposition groups, typically faith-based, have been mobilizing in Kenya and Uganda with added momentum, and likely now with added funding from U.S. donors, Hutchins said.

It could stifle discussion on easing the total ban on abortion in the Dominican Republic as well, she said.

“It’s re-energizing anti-abortion movements but also re-energizing an opposition that don’t want young people to have access to comprehensive sexuality education, that want to curb access to contraceptives, that want to curb progress on women’s rights and the rights of young people,” she said.

“It has huge implications for human rights.”

The United States is one of four countries that have tightened abortion restrictions in the past three decades, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Others moving in a similar direction are El Salvador, Nicaragua and Poland.

“Whose example should we be following?” asked Hutchins. “Should the U.S. be the example?”

Abortion opponents 'greatly encouraged'

In India, where abortion is available up to 24 weeks, anti-abortion, conservative, Christian organizations have taken their lead from the Supreme Court and staged marches and rallies, said Amita Dhanu of the Family Planning Association of India.

“They’re just getting bolder, and they are getting together in larger numbers,” she added, saying some abortion providers feared violence might soon break out at their clinics.

“Now it is wait and watch.”

Europe, too, is mobilizing against abortion, activists said.

The U.S. National Right to Life Committee said anti-abortion groups are gearing up in Switzerland, Belgium and Spain, emboldened by the ruling in Washington D.C.

“We do know the pro-life movement in other countries is greatly encouraged,” Carol Tobias, NRLC president, said in an email, refusing questions on how it has affected fundraising.

“The rejection of abortion as a constitutional right has garnered international attention and has encouraged pro-life individuals in other countries,” Tobias said.

It is not all one-way traffic, though.

Sierra Leone has proposed a “Safe Motherhood” bill, supported by its president, that would expand access to abortion and could become law this year, Dube said.

It currently has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world, according to UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency. Its mortality rates among newborns, infants and young children also are among the world’s highest.

Mexico, Colombia and Argentina have also recently loosened restrictions on abortion access, advocates said, noting that the United States was not the only leader in the abortion pack.

"Countries are still making decisions that are right for their citizens,” Dube said. “Despite what we are seeing in the U.S., there are some countries that are progressive.”

(Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.)

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