The rollback of US abortion rights has sent shockwaves across the world. Now is the time to unite for reproductive choice

29 June 2022

This week, we all watched in horror as decades of conservative efforts led to the United States Supreme Court stripping away their citizens’ right to abortion.  Despite a leaked draft opinion leaving little hope for a different outcome, the repeal of Roe v Wade sent shockwaves across the world, with thousands of women and allies taking to the streets in support of reproductive rights. By reversing the 50-year-old precedent, the US became one of just three other countries to have rolled back abortion access this century.

We don’t need to peer into the distant past to know what this will mean for women and girls in America.  The evidence is clear – restricting abortion laws does not prevent abortion from happening - it just makes it more likely to be unsafe. Around the world, the prevention of abortion remains one of the leading causes of preventable deaths and research from Duke University estimates that overturning Roe could increase pregnancy-related deaths among US women overall by 21%, and by 33% for women of colour.
 
The repeal of Roe will almost certainly embolden well-funded and vociferous US-based anti-choice networks that extend across the globe. Right-wing Christian organisations in the US spend an estimated $280m a year attacking abortion and LGBTQI+ rights globally, using the same tactics in countries including Uganda, Zambia and Nigeria. These networks and campaigns are not just restricted to abortion rights, but also attack progress on comprehensive sexuality education, LGBTQI+ rights and gender equality. 
 
The negative impact of US abortion policies overseas is certainly not a new phenomenon. During Donald Trump’s presidency, many organisations around the world experienced the full force of his expanded Global Gag Rule. As with this recent decision, this helped to further legitimise anti-choice movements outside of the US and sent a chilling effect across the development and health sector, with organisations who didn’t work in abortion afraid to partner with those that did, and providers often feeling scared or confused about what the policy allowed.
 
And as much as we know that restrictive abortion policies cost lives, the opposite is also true. In countries where abortion has been liberalised over the past few decades, such as Nepal, Cambodia and Ethiopia, the number of women dying has fallen dramatically and hospital wards once reserved to treat women in critical conditions following unsafe abortions are now used to provide reproductive care. 

Recently we’ve seen across Latin America the power of women standing shoulder to shoulder to demand and secure their reproductive rights. The green scarves that we are now seeing in protests across America remind us of the courage and resilience of our movement. This progress has been seen across the world. Since 2000, 37 countries have expanded their legal provision for abortion including the Republic of Ireland in 2018, Benin and Thailand in 2021. 

Here in the UK, this is a timely reminder that we cannot be complacent about hard-won rights and that our work is not done until abortion is treated like all other healthcare and not criminalised. 
 
We were pleased to hear the UK Prime Minister calling out this decision as a "huge backwards step" and his support for women’s right to choose. It is also critical that the UK government continues to be a global champion for progressing and defending comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion. 

Whilst we welcome the commitment in the new International Development Strategy to "universal, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights", this should be accompanied by a return in funding to previous levels of £500 million a year for this vital work, following the 85% cuts as part of the overall UK aid reduction in 2021.

Furthermore, the government's upcoming Women and Girls' Strategy is an opportunity to further detail and expand on this commitment. We will be looking for the strategy to set out clear interventions to tackle the attempted rollbacks on women’s and girls' rights. The ambition from the UK on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) can also go beyond this and set out clear intentions to accelerate and champion reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy.

We need everyone to be committed to promoting and defending women and girls’ rights to make free and informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

The UK SRHR Network stands in solidarity with girls and women in all their diversity – in the US, and elsewhere. Access to safe and legal abortion is a fundamental human right and should be available to all.

This blog was written by Bekky Ashmore and Bethan Cobley, on behalf of the UK SRHR Network.

About the author

Plan International UK

Bekky is the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Policy and Advocacy Adviser

Bethan has worked with MSI Reproductive Choices for nearly ten years and is currently the Director of Resilience, Advocacy and Partnerships