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Abortion rights supporters rally on May 14 2022. Picture: JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES
Abortion rights supporters rally on May 14 2022. Picture: JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

Pattaya City — Women and girls around the world will suffer a knock-on effect from the US 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 US decision to reverse Roe v Wade.

“You have heard the term that when the US 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.”

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

“Most of the time, the US is seen as progressive and is seen as the leader, and if the leader is going backwards, so do 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 US court overturned women's right to an abortion nationwide — a move that will ricochet well beyond the world of pregnancy and outside of US borders, they said.

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

The US is unrivalled in its financial clout as the world’s largest donor to family planning and reproductive health services, averaging about $600m a year in funding, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a US nonprofit.

The court ruling will bleed into healthcare policy, too.

“What the US does often has global repercussions, whether it’s positive or negative,” said Samukeliso Dube, the SA-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 US Supreme Court decision was handed down, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, called it “a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality”.

In its wake, 13 of 50 US 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 organisation.

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

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

‘Global gag rule’

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

The rule has flip-flopped since the 1980s, dependent on the US 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 US aid in dozens of countries.

Under former Republican US 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 probably unsafe.

After former US president Donald Trump reinstated the rule, healthcare services to poor and marginalised 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 healthcare — 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 in 2022 could be affected by the new US 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 US-based organisation of reproductive rights advocates.

Opposition groups, typically faith-based, have been mobilising in Kenya and Uganda with added momentum, and probably now with added funding from US 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-energising anti-abortion movements but also re-energising 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 US 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 US be the example?”

Abortion opponents ‘greatly encourages’

In India, where abortion is available up to 24 weeks, anti-abortion, conservative, Christian organisations 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 mobilising against abortion, activists said.

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

“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 in 2022, Dube said.

It currently has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world, according to Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency. Its mortality rate 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 US 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 US, there are some countries that are progressive.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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