After a US Supreme Court draft opinion that proposed overturning the landmark Roe V. Wade case was leaked on May 2, protests have erupted across the world, as the fight to protect women’s access to safe, legal abortion rages on.
In the two weeks since the leaked opinion was released, the case has been prevalent in the news, despite the fact that there has been no update regarding the decision – despite the court’s confirmation that the document was legitimate.
Overturning the case would eliminate federal, constitutional protections surrounding women’s rights to have an abortion. As a result, the power to determine the legality of abortions would be given to the states. Currently, around half of the states are expected to ban abortion if the case is overturned, about a dozen of which already have what are called 'trigger laws,' which would immediately ban abortion in the event of an overturn. This would mean that women in those states would be cut off, or severely limited, from accessing abortion, said Sandra Duffy, a lecturer in human rights law, specialising in gender and sexuality, at the University of Bristol.
“It is impossible to overstate the impact of this. People who could afford to travel for abortion would do so, but people from disadvantaged or marginalised communities, who are less likely to have the resources to travel, would be the most impacted,” Duffy said.
“People will die from unsafe pregnancies and attempts to procure illegal abortions. It is a huge loss for women's rights.”
But even though around half of US states seem to be against legal abortion, survey data from Leger, suggests that the majority of Americans aren’t in favor of an overturn. According to the survey, 56% of Americans think Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, 28% think it should be overturned and 16% don’t know.
Among those who disapprove of an overturn are the numerous women’s advocacy groups that are fearful of the consequences from the decision. Each year, 25 million women around the world resort to dangerous and unsafe abortion methods, and with the threat of further restrictions to abortion services looming, this number is at risk of becoming even higher.
“While the leaked Supreme Court opinion is not an official position, if it stands, it would be the biggest setback to women’s rights in the US in a generation, and the impact would be felt worldwide,” said Sarah Shaw, Head of Advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices. “Abortion care is an essential, safe, common healthcare procedure. We’ve seen how anti-choice policies in the United States tend to embolden the opposition around the world, limiting women’s right to choose. But restricting access doesn’t prevent abortion, it only makes it less safe, forcing women to seek unsafe abortions instead.”
While the US will be directly and immediately affected by this decision, the country is not the only one that will be implicated. Many agencies and activists that support access to abortion have expressed their concerns that overturning Roe V. Wade could reignite anti-abortion platforms across the world, especially because of the power and prevalence of the US.
“We are concerned about the message this sends to the world at a time when women in many countries are still struggling to achieve abortion rights,” said Katherine O’Brien, Associate Director of Communications and Campaigns at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
“The US is one of the biggest forces on the global political stage, and revoking the constitutional right to abortion will undoubtedly impact the fight in other parts of the world. Not only does the US have cultural influence, it is also a financial donor towards healthcare services overseas. Many countries shape their reproductive healthcare policies to align with American policies in order to secure funding,” she said.
One region that could be greatly affected by this is Africa, which has already seen disrupted access to sexual and reproductive health services as a result of US foreign policies such as the Global Gag Rule. The United States is the largest global donor of international family planning and reproductive health assistance, supporting programs in 40 countries and giving approximately $575 million annually in funds for bilateral assistance. According to Sara E Casey, assistant professor at the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University, countries that rely heavily on this funding look to the countries that fund them for guidance. As a result, “it is likely that countries may use the US abortion ban to further restrict abortion access out of fear that the US global health assistance on which they depend may be reduced,” Casey wrote in her article.
But this is not the only region that will likely be impacted by the decision.
According to Caroline Hickson, International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Network Regional Director, the decision has the power to influence other countries in two ways. It will either have the potential to spill over into countries that could use it as fuel for existing anti-abortion agendas, or it could empower abortion and women’s rights activists to campaign more aggressively for the right to abortion access.
“In Europe, you see countries going in two opposite directions,” Hickson said. “A number of countries are advancing reproductive rights, while a number of others are involved in a pushback in which the powerful use reproductive rights and sexual rights as a wedge issue to gain support of constituencies.”
Countries in Eastern Europe where access to abortion is already difficult, including Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Croatia and Slovakia, could be at a higher risk of being influenced by the overturn, as could countries where gender-based violence is prevalent, Hickson said. In these countries, abortion laws are strict and resources are difficult to access, so it’s possible that we could see them use what’s happening in the US as a reason to further restrict abortion access and dissuade women from accessing the services that may exist. For example, Ukraine has seen many attempts to roll back abortion rights, Slovakia provides no access to medical abortions, so women are forced to travel to Austria for services, and in Poland and Hungary emergency contraception is on prescription only, which creates barriers for women whose access is subject to the permission of their doctors.
Additionally, an overturn of Roe V. Wade, combined with existing abortion restrictions can create a chilling effect on doctors. Seeing what’s happening around the world could cause doctors to become fearful of what could happen to them if they are to engage in abortion practices, especially in cases where an abortion is not legally permitted but could save the woman’s life. For example, in Poland, a woman died after doctors did not terminate her 22-week pregnancy, even though “her fetus lacked enough amniotic fluid to survive.” Doctors did not carry out the abortion that could have saved her life because of a new restrictive abortion law, going against which could result in a prison sentence of up to eight years. In cases like these, access becomes more difficult even with doctors who would usually support a woman's right to choose, Hickson said.
Additionally, restrictive abortion laws across the world could result in a “massive shortage” of trained abortion providers. As these services become more stigmatised, the next generation of doctors and midwives may not receive abortion training, as it is already a limited field, and additional restrictions could limit employment prospects for individuals who choose to specialize in it, Sarah Shaw said.
However, while overturning the case will likely embolden these anti-abortion groups and governments, it also has the potential to inspire society to stand up and increase the determination to fight for these rights. According to Hickson, it will likely increase the understanding of what is happening, shedding a light on it and emphasising that it is not an isolated incident in the US. In turn, this “attack on wider progress” serves an opportunity for people to come together and advance women’s freedom.
“What’s happening in the US actually draws attention to what is happening in eastern Europe, and I think the more you can cast a light on what is happening, the more you can support the voice of activists who do not agree with what their government is doing mostly using undemocratic means.”
Conversely, this raised awareness and sympathy for women whose home country does not allow them to access safe, legal abortion resources could see neighboring countries with more liberal abortion laws provide assistance to these women in need.
“When the US Supreme Court first legalised abortion in 1973, the country was one of the leaders on reproductive rights. Today, it is moving against the Green Wave sweeping Latin America, and the once-unthinkable prospect of US women crossing the border to access safe, legal reproductive healthcare in Mexico could soon become a reality,” Araceli Lopez Nava Vázquez, MSI Reproductive Choices' Regional Managing Director for Latin America, said in a comment.
So, if Roe V Wade is officially overturned, when will we start to see the effects around the world?
Dr. Darren Reid, Course Director of History at Coventry University and American History expert, said he thinks we will start to see the issue reenter the national discussion and will galvanise many people on both sides of the spectrum. It is unlikely that the decision will immediately impact other countries. However, it will likely reintroduce the conversation into the sphere and has the potential to eventually motivate countries that have wanted to ban abortion to use this as a starting point to do so. This increased debate surrounding abortion access could also play a key role in future elections, specifically in the US, where the coming elections will likely serve as a referendum for this issue.
“The next election will be critical in establishing the longevity of this debate,” Reid said. “People will either be so enraged by the decision that they’ll vote for someone who will protect women’s rights or they won’t. It will show us whether people are truly passionate about this issue.”
While abortion has always been a highly relevant issue in political debate, Sandra Duffy, lecturer in human rights law, at the University of Bristol, also sees the topic becoming more of a “hot-button issue” as its status grows more prevalent.
“From my experience in Ireland, I have lived in a country with illegal abortion and seen the way politicians use it as almost a mark of their morality to emphasise whether they are pro-choice or anti-choice,” Duffy said. “I can see politicians on both sides of the political aisle in the US leaning in to their stance on abortion rights in order to appeal to voters.”
It is still unclear if the Supreme Court will actually overturn Roe V. Wade after the amount of push back the draft decision has received over the past two weeks. But what is clear is that the decision to overturn the case could implicate millions of women across the world, and advocates for women’s rights will not sit idly by and wait for this to happen.
“There are still a lot of unknowns, and it is yet to be seen how this is going to play out,” said Sarah Shaw. “What should be a completely normalised health service is stigmatised and marginalised within the health system. We have to know our rights and talk about a range of abortions to normalize it because this is a choice that should not be taken away.”