By Josephine O’Brien
On 24 June 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned 1973’s Roe v. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of constitutionally protected abortion rights in the United States and sending shockwaves through the global community.
The decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, returns the jurisdiction of abortion to the individual states, half of which are expected to ban the procedure completely. Dobbs is a significant step back in rights for the millions of Americans with the ability to get pregnant, with Supreme Court Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor writing in dissent that, “after today, young women will come of age with fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers had.” But the hidden impacts of Dobbs extend far outside of America’s borders, undermining America’s relationships with allies, providing legal inspiration for anti-choice campaigners, and potentially impacting material access to reproductive care throughout the world.
Significantly, Roe’s overturn has exacerbated divides between the U.S. and its global allies, undermining President Joe Biden’s efforts to restore diplomatic confidence in the U.S. following the Trump Administration’s isolationist foreign policy. President Trump’s “America First” policy centered on addressing global problems unilaterally and included pulling out of international agreements like the Iran Nuclear Deal and Paris Climate Accords.
President Joe Biden has prioritized rebuilding America’s alliances and standing on the global stage, but foreign policy specialists like Marti Flacks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies fear that Dobbs will increase allies’ skepticism of the President’s rhetoric. The Dobbs decision was immediately criticized by America’s closest allies, including Great Britain, Germany, and France, with President Macron tweeting, “I wish to express my solidarity with the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Célia Belin of the Brookings Institute told Foreign Policy that Dobbs is indicative of an “ever-growing value gap” between the U.S. and its allies, forcing allies to consider whether agreement on global interests is enough to sustain an alliance with profoundly different values. Additionally, President Biden has made revitalizing global democracy a cornerstone of his diplomatic policy, but experts fear that it will be difficult for America to exercise credibility on the global stage when it has made itself an outlier as one of the only countries to roll back reproductive rights in the past fifty years.
Outside of diplomatic discussion rooms, global reproductive rights advocates are concerned that Roe’s overturn will have a chilling effect on abortion access internationally, particularly in the African continent. Pansi Akenza from IPAS, a global reproductive rights organization, commented to Devex that due to America’s role as the world’s largest donor of international health aid, “when the U.S. sneezes, the whole world gets a cold.”
Although the Helms Amendment prevents foreign governments from using American funds to provide abortions, restrictions on abortion rights in the U.S. have historically been met with decreased access to reproductive healthcare and contraceptives throughout Africa. The Mexico City Policy, also titled the Global Gag Rule, has been active during Republican administrations since the 1980s and bans foreign non-governmental organizations from promoting abortion as a condition of receiving U.S. aid. Because of the outsized role that the U.S. plays in funding health services within Africa — according to Al Jazeera 95% of sexual and reproductive health aid in Kenya comes from the U.S. — organizations were afraid of doing anything related to protecting abortion rights out of fears of losing critical funding.
A May 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the Mexico City Policy’s most recent implementation under the Trump Administration led to decreased access to reproductive healthcare, less access to trusted providers, and decreased trust in the American government. The policy also shut down contraceptive services in Malawi, Senegal, and Kenya, and women in Nigeria found it more difficult to access contraception because non-governmental organizations there experienced funding cuts due to promoting abortion in other countries. Bethany Van Kampen Seravia of IPAS told Politico that previous American policies have already caused “an incredible chilling effect in countries that are receiving U.S. foreign assistance, and so you can imagine that with this decision, that chill will become worse.”
Advocates have also noted that the Dobbs decision has galvanized anti-choice and religious groups internationally and provided legal fodder for their efforts to oppose reproductive rights legislation. In Bangladesh, anti-abortion advocates used the leaked draft of Dobbs as justification to challenge a bill expanding sexual and reproductive health rights. Politicians recently tabled a bill in Malawi that would expand access to abortion cases, and Ketenga of IPAS fears that anti-choice momentum following the U.S. Supreme Court decision could stall the bill indefinitely.
Many nations in Africa used the language of Roe v. Wade as a model when establishing the right to abortion in their legal systems, putting these laws in precarious positions following the Dobbs decision. The Cape Verde Islands and Tunisia both used Roe’s timeline as a guide when establishing the right to abortion and the Kenyan Supreme Court directly referenced Roe when enshrining abortion access as a human right. Roe v. Wade has been used as a tool to liberalize abortion rights throughout Africa, but its overturn has eradicated this legal legitimacy and provided judges looking to the West for precedent the legal justification to restrict abortion. Thus, Kenyan human rights lawyer Stephanie Musho wrote in Al Jazeera in May that “a move by the SCOTUS to overturn Roe v Wade would also put the right to abortion in further jeopardy in my own country.”
In an August analysis, the Washington Post found that one in three American women had already lost access to all abortion access in their states, with more restrictive laws expected to come in the current months. But the worst may be yet to come, as Dobbs has the potential to fundamentally reshape the structure of reproductive rights and abortion access throughout the world.
This situation is most precarious in Africa, where the risk of dying from an unsafe abortion is the highest in the world. Beginning this January, Republicans and Democrats split control of Congress, which may hinder President Biden’s ability to promote abortion access and reproductive funding worldwide. However, even a strong stance from the President may not be enough to re-establish America’s global credibility and soothe non-governmental organizations’ fears of funding loss.