The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The global stakes behind America’s abortion fight

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In many ways, the American debate on abortion is unique to the particularities of American politics: No other country has the exact same constitutional assemblage of life-tenured Supreme Court justices and empowered state legislatures. No other country has an institution quite like the U.S. Senate, where a bulwark of Republican lawmakers elected by a minority of the country has dictated the fate of major national policy — in part, by selecting said justices — for the better part of two decades. And no other country has the same gap between a public that broadly supports a woman’s right to an abortion and a motivated, organized ideological right-wing movement that has worked for decades in the halls of power to curtail it.

The release this week of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the constitutional right to an abortion, as set down in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, has put all those particularities back into focus. If the decision gets pushed through by a Supreme Court’s conservative majority, it would almost immediately see over a dozen Republican-controlled states implement laws banning or restricting abortion. Rights advocates fear the new precedent would only be the start of a greater domestic unwinding of civil liberties, including that of same-sex marriage.

A wave of abortion restrictions in the United States would largely buck the worldwide trend. In the last 28 years, over 30 countries have expanded national abortion access, while only three countries — Nicaragua, Poland and El Salvador — have pushed through new national restrictions. Unintended pregnancies are at a 30-year low around the world, while abortion rates are rising in both countries where access is legalized as well as in those where abortion is restricted, according to a recent study co-led by the World Health Organization.

Even in deeply Catholic Latin America, where wholesale abortion bans remain in place in a few countries, pro-abortion campaigners have lodged major recent victories. In February, Colombia’s constitutional court voted to decriminalize abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. That followed a similar ruling last September by Mexico’s Supreme Court. “Never again will a woman or a person with the capacity to carry a child be criminally prosecuted,” Justice Luis Maria Aguilar of the Mexican court said after the ruling. “Today the threat of imprisonment and stigma that weigh on people who freely decide to terminate their pregnancy are banished.”

What would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned

Advocates fear regression in the United States would give momentum to illiberal forces elsewhere. “It is an awful precedent for the coming years for the region and the world,” Catalina Martínez Coral, Latin America and Caribbean director for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which helped litigate the abortion case in Colombia’s high court, said to the Associated Press.

“While moves to decriminalize and legalize abortion in places like Argentina, Ireland, Mexico and Colombia in the last few years have been a huge win for the global community,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of human rights group Amnesty International, said in a statement, “there are grim signs that the United States is out of step with the progress that the rest of the world is making in protecting sexual and reproductive rights.”

Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins, head of PAI, an international reproductive rights group, added in a statement that the “decision would bolster the anti-abortion movement around the world, derail the progress toward universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights and violate the agency, autonomy and aspirations of communities across the United States.”

As Max Fisher noted in the New York Times, there’s a correlation between governments restricting women’s rights and presiding over the broader erosion of democracy. “Curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate in backsliding democracies, a category that includes the United States, according to virtually every independent metric and watchdog,” he wrote last year. “In more degraded democracies, the effect is more extreme. Around the globe, the rise of right-wing populism has been followed by extraordinary reductions in women’s rights, according to a 2019 report by Freedom House.”

Though some conservative politicians in other Western countries cheered the news of the looming Supreme Court decision, many others warned that this moment was a reminder that hard-won rights cannot be taken for granted. “We have seen, with the reported imminent overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States, that rights, once secured, must continue to be fought and advocated for,” said Róisín Shortall, a member of Parliament in Ireland, which repealed its abortion ban in 2018. “We do not want to see a similar diminution in the reproductive rights of Irish women coming in by stealth.”

“Every women in Canada has a right to a safe and legal abortion,” tweeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “We’ll never back down from protecting and promoting women’s rights in Canada and around the world.”

In Spain, lawmakers from far-right opposition party Vox called for similar antiabortion action from their country’s constitutional court. Their rivals in government aren’t about to budge. “We need to continue to protect sexual and reproductive rights, in the U.S. and around the world,” said Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s second deputy prime minister.

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