Abortion rights activists across the world have watched aghast as the US seems as though it might roll back nearly 50 years of progress on abortion. A leaked draft decision from the Supreme Court suggests the national right to abortion is likely to be overturned, with the repeal of the 1973 court ruling known as Roe vs Wade. If the decision stands, it would not only restrict access to essential healthcare services for women in America but further influence global movements that seek to deny the rights of women.
Wherever MSI Reproductive Choices works, one crucial fact remains constant: that restricting abortion does not reduce its prevalence. According to the World Health Organisation around 45 per cent of all abortions are unsafe, and most of these are in low-income countries where legal restrictions, stigma and health system challenges force women to risk their lives.
In countries where access is restricted, unintended pregnancies ending in abortion have increased from 36 to 50 per cent to over the past 30 years. This serves as a reminder that women will continue to seek to end unintended pregnancies and that restrictive laws only force many to turn to dangerous methods, risking their health and lives.
We don’t need to flick through the history books either, or ask our parents and grandparents, to see what this will mean for women in America. We see in countries with restricted abortion laws around the world how unsafe abortion remains a major cause of pregnancy-related deaths. Recent research from Duke University estimated that if Roe were overturned there would be a 21 per cent increase in maternal deaths in the US, and 31 per cent for women of colour.
However, we’ve also seen the reverse. In countries where we work that have liberalised their abortion laws over the past 25 years, such as Nepal, Cambodia and Ethiopia, more women have been able to access safe care and deaths from unsafe abortion have dropped. And in Mexico City, where abortion was legalised in 2007, there have been no abortion-related deaths and an 80 per cent reduction in emergency cases due to the availability of safe care.
As the Green Wave women’s rights movement sweeps through Latin America, spurring a change towards progressive abortion policies in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, our regional managing director for Latin America, Araceli Lopez Nava Vázquez, commented: “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.”
The effects of US abortion policies overseas can be seen over decades. During Donald Trump’s presidency, many of our country programmes felt the full force of the “gag rule”, an American policy that blocked US federal global health funding to organisations that provide abortions with non-US funding. It helped to further legitimise anti-choice movements outside of the US.
If Roe vs Wade were either gutted or reversed, it’s highly likely that that would further embolden well-funded and vociferous anti-choice networks that already extend across the globe. Open Democracy estimated last year that right-wing Christian organisations in the US spend roughly $280m a year on attacking abortion and LGBTQIA rights globally.
Wherever we work, harassment and intimidation of our providers and clients is common. Online attacks that shut down our Facebook or WhatsApp pages — as experienced recently by our Mexico team — are on the rise.
In our Africa programmes we are increasingly encountering identical playbooks exported by US anti-choice groups who are funding and supporting local proxies in countries including Uganda, Zambia and Nigeria. In a lot of countries anti-choice “mystery shoppers”, who pose as women seeking help, contact our clinics weekly, wasting time and resources.
Closer to home, any reversal in the US will embolden anti-choice groups in the UK, with more funding enabling these groups to continue harassing and intimidating women outside our clinics. In the UK, money from the US funds networks of pregnancy crisis centres and doctors that offer so-called “abortion reversal” pills and target women seeking abortion with misleading promises of help and clinical advice.
When abortion rights are under threat, it reminds us of how vital our work is and how there is no room for complacency. Teams across MSI are standing ready to do all they can to protect progress and access in the countries where we work, and we call on everyone who cares about a woman’s right to choose not to give up. Now, more than ever, we need advocates to speak up about women’s rights, not just in the US but around the world.