Photo Credit: Tony Webster
By Lilit Arakelyan
The possible revoking of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in the case of Roe v. Wade has sparked intense debate and protest across the United States. This landmark case protects women’s right to abortion in the United States and set a precedent for the expansion of reproductive rights globally. Now, the fate of this epochal case has been called into question over the possibility of a ban on abortion that would take effect immediately for about half of the nation. In light of the leaked draft opinion, this would not be the first time in history that abortion has been legalized, then taken away.
In 1920, Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, became the first country to legalize the termination of a pregnancy to combat the consequences of illegal abortions. Though this legalization was recinded during Stalin’s rule, Lenin had essentially pioneered the movement for the formal decriminalization of abortion in the early 20th Century. The worldwide trend to decriminalize abortion gained traction over the last 50 years following the Roe v. Wade decision, which ruled government regulation on abortion unconstitutional. Today, the United States, alongside 71 other countries, have legalized the termination of a pregnancy with abortion “on request”—the idea that “doctors, or other professionals are not required to attest to, or certify the existence of a particular reason or justification for [an] abortion.” This provides those seeking an abortion the ability to receive the medical care necessary to carry out an abortion in a safe manner.
The Health and Human Rights Journal discusses the positive global impact of Roe v. Wade. Courts in “Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Nepal have directly incorporated these [reproductive rights] standards into groundbreaking cases liberalizing abortion laws and increasing women’s access to safe abortion services.” European countries have some of the highest levels of abortion access, with 95% of women in Europe having access upon request.
The United States is considered a leader in reproductive rights globally. Its potential decision to overturn Roe v. Wade may have catastrophic repercussions internationally, sending confusing messages about the nation’s stance on human rights. While much of the world has been expanding accessibility to reproductive health resources, and abortion services in particular, the United States appears to be regressing and on the cusp of rolling back abortion access, if the draft opinion represents the Court’s final judgement.
In a recent NPR interview, Amnesty International’s interim national director for programs disclosed her fear that “other countries could point to the U.S. to legitimize their own policies restricting reproductive rights.”
Upon news of the draft opinion leak, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Justice Center collaboratively wrote a statement denouncing the Texas anti-abortion law, stating “abortion bans, such as the 6-week restriction in Texas, are inconsistent with international human rights protections.” Although international laws regarding abortion do not currently exist, human rights organizations such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Inter-American System of Human Rights (IAS) have found that restrictive abortion laws discriminate against women’s liberties and rights to health care services.
While moral and religious justifications are often used to defend restrictive legislation, laws that restrict abortion access are ultimately economically unpropitious and detrimental to public health and human rights. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) notes that criminalization of abortion increases the likelihood that women will resort to unsafe methods of pregnancy termination, increasing both the risk of injury and mortality. A 2006 study from the World Health Organization (WHO) broke down the costs that developing countries suffered due to complications from unsafe abortions. Health care systems within developing countries suffered costs equivalent to US$553 million per year from post-abortion treatments, while households in these developing countries experienced costs equivalent to US$922 million in loss of income, which generally stemmed from a long-term disability caused by unsafe abortion practices.
Responding to decades of statistical data demonstrating the harm in restricting access to safe methods of abortion, many nations have taken legislative action to expand abortion access. Should Roe v. Wade be nullified and subsequently used as justification for restrictive laws against abortion, the expansionary trend of reproductive rights and liberties that the world has witnessed over the past 50 years may slow to a halt, or potentially and most worringly, reverse itself. The Council on Foreign Relations states that “between 1990–94 and 2015–19, the average abortion rate in countries with generally legal abortion (excluding China and India) declined by 43 percent.” According to the WHO, however, approximately 45% of abortions are still performed in an unsafe manner (that is, without a medical professional), of which 97% occur in developing countries. Human Rights Watch has also concluded that within the nations of El Salvador, South Africa, Romania, and Ecuador, there is a distinct positive correlation between restrictive laws on abortion and the rate of maternal mortality and morbidity.
Increasing abortion access will dramatically decrease the illegal attempts to terminate a pregnancy and the health consequences associated with these attempts. A reversal of Roe v. Wade would only impede upon women’s liberties and safety and erode the progress made towards making safe abortion resources available internationally. Its reversal could also hinder access to educational programs and information regarding sexual health, both nationally and across the globe. While several U.S. studies have found that sex education is effective in reducing unintended pregnancies in adolescents, half of the 20 states in the United States that would see an abortion ban enacted if the draft opinion is finalized do not currently mandate sex education in their schools. For comparison, China, a nation that had one of the highest rates of abortion in the world at 43 per every 100 pregnancies in 2020, does not have mandated sex education in its schools. The correlation between access to reliable educational and reproductive health resources and abortion rates establishes education as a preliminary measure to reduce unintended pregnancies.The nullification of Roe v. Wade may normalize the rescission of abortion access in places where reproductive health education is already limited or entirely nonexistent.
Much of the world has been working to increase access to safe abortion resources over the last five decades. Roe v. Wade stands as the achievement that started it all. If the leaked draft opinion represents the final judgment of the Court, the United States will be set back decades from its progress on women’s health and abortion access. Furthermore, countries that have yet to undertake such progressive steps may be less inclined to expand reproductive rights in the future. Only a half-century after the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, its looming revocation casts a long and dark shadow over the world, one that may engender further backsliding on abortion access and restriction on women’s rights.