The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Supreme Court has undermined U.S. credibility on human rights

An abortion rights activist wears a mask with text that reads in Spanish "Legal Abortion" during a demonstration in Buenos Aires in December 2020. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

For decades, the United States has been a world leader in promoting reproductive rights and women’s rights. But now, by overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has struck a severe blow to American credibility in this role. And that, in turn, undermines U.S. international advocacy on these issues, which could result in a cascade of negative consequences around the world.

Last week’s Supreme Court decision on abortion triggered a deluge of criticism from world leaders, protests at U.S. embassies abroad and general embarrassment for President Biden, who is traveling in Europe. Over the longer term, international erosion of faith in the United States’ commitment to reproductive rights and the effects of changes in U.S. law could do real harm, according to foreign officials, lawmakers and leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) I’ve spoken with.

“Given our historical experience, for sure the restrictions that will arise from the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will have significant repercussions at the global level,” Karla Berdichevsky Feldman, director general of the national center for gender equity and reproductive health in Mexico’s Ministry of Health said Monday at an online event hosted by PAI, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive health care for women and girls worldwide.

She said the Supreme Court has set a dangerous precedent by deciding women’s health issues without considering scientific evidence or health outcomes — which, she argued, could undermine progress in countries now moving toward legalization or decriminalization of abortion, such as Mexico and Argentina.

For now, the United States is still the top funder of bilateral family planning and reproductive health programs in the world through USAID-sponsored programs in nearly 40 countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on the Supreme Court ruling, saying, “under this Administration, the State Department will remain fully committed to helping provide access to reproductive health services and advancing reproductive rights around the world.” But there’s little detail on how the administration will use its limited time in office to bolster these commitments.

Members of the global NGO community told me that they fear that, because U.S. laws and rights around abortion are quickly changing in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, the risks inherent in a Republican takeover of Congress next year or the White House in 2025 are much higher. The GOP could use its power over budgets and international programs to export the erosion of abortion rights here at home.

For decades, Democratic presidents have consistently waived what’s known as the Global Gag Rule (or the Mexico City Policy), which requires any foreign organization receiving U.S. family planning assistance to certify that it doesn’t participate in abortion-related services. Republican presidents have consistently reinstated it.

But the Trump administration went further than any of its predecessors by drastically expanding the scope of the restrictions to cover more than $7 billion worth of U.S. global health programs. Data show that the administration’s action had disastrous effects on health outcomes for women and girls, especially in the LGBTQ, rural, poor and other marginalized communities. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, the fear is that a next GOP administration could take those restrictions even further.

“When the Global Gag Rule went into effect in the Trump administration, it weakened and dismantled entire health systems,” PAI President and chief executive Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins told me. Public health organizations in developing countries have always had to worry about the ebb and flow of politics in Washington, she said. But the repeal of Roe v. Wade raises more fundamental concerns about America’s reliability as a partner.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been trying for years, unsuccessfully, to pass legislation to permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule. The impact of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade will have long-lasting consequences for women’s health and freedom around the world, she told me.

“Internationally, this decision will compound the damage already done by the Trump administration’s reckless restrictions on access to care, which put the health of women, children and families in harm’s way,” she said. “It’s shameful that extreme partisan ideology is informing policies that will have real, punitive consequences for women seeking health services.”

The Supreme Court’s decisions also could undermine U.S. leadership in promoting other related human rights abroad, including the right to privacy, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to not be tortured, and the right to life — the mother’s right to life, that is.

As a team of U.N. experts said this past week, the United States could now be seen as in direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that governments “must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion” when the health of the mother is at risk or in cases of rape and incest. The covenant also demands that governments not criminalize abortion, which invariably forces women to resort to unsafe abortions.

The Supreme Court’s majority decision in the Dobbs case doesn’t even address the international human rights legal implications. And now, experts warn, the United States stands among a few countries that are moving backward on reproductive rights, such as Poland, Ecuador, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

“The U.S. is aligned today with those very countries that the U.S. has often criticized for its violation of human rights, including the way in which women and girls are treated,” Macarena Saez, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told me. “The U.S. is now an outlier in terms of democracies.”

What happens in the United States doesn’t stay in the United States. America’s about-face from being a leader in promoting reproductive and women’s rights to a backward-moving outlier will result in real suffering, and not just for Americans. The Supreme Court has done a disservice to the rights of people all around the globe.