Within a weeklong period in September, the US Supreme Court effectively gave Texas a green light to proceed with what some called a “blatantly unconstitutional” near-total abortion ban, while just across the nation’s southern border, Mexico’s high court took a massive step toward legalizing the procedure.
Advocates of abortion rights said the moves pointed to a worrying trend: While other nations were generally on a path to expand women’s rights to abortion, the US appeared to be on a course to curtail them.
Their suspicions appeared to be confirmed on May 2, when a leaked draft opinion suggested Supreme Court justices were poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, unraveling the right to an abortion in the country.
If the court does so, the US will be in increasingly rare company. While nearly 50 countries have expanded access to abortion over the past several decades, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, only a handful have rolled back rights during the timeframe. And most industrialized countries allow abortion without restriction, experts say.
Photos: Abortion Protests Erupt
As a high-income country, the US would “stand out” if it overturns Roe, says Susheela Singh, vice president for global science and policy integration at the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research and policy organization.
“It’s rare,” Singh says. “To have a country go backwards just gives it a very bad standing in the realm of human rights, of women’s rights.”
Access to abortion varies widely around the world. While some countries prohibit the procedure altogether, others allow it only to save a woman’s life or to preserve her health. Some allow abortion on broad social or economic grounds and others ban the procedure after a certain amount of time has passed in a pregnancy.
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 66 countries prohibit abortion or allow it only in cases where a woman’s life is in danger. Most of those countries, including Sudan, Myanmar and Honduras, are low or middle-income.
In the last few years, several countries have made headlines for easing abortion restrictions. In 2020, Argentina decriminalized abortion despite the procedure for years being considered politically untouchable. Experts say Argentina’s move, sparked by a feminist movement called the “green wave,” fueled efforts beyond its borders. Mexico’s decriminalization followed in 2021, and early this year, Colombia likewise decriminalized the procedure. According to experts, Chile is widely expected to be the next frontier for abortion access in the region, with a chance to enshrine a right to the procedure in its constitution later this year.
But as some countries have advanced legislation to make abortion legal, a few have moved in the opposite direction.
A controversial court ruling in Poland in October 2020 imposed a near-total abortion ban that sent shockwaves through the country, resulting in some of the largest demonstrations seen since the collapse of communism decades earlier. In an apparent response to the demonstrations, the court delayed the implementation of the ruling, but it ultimately took effect in January of 2021. Nicaragua likewise revoked abortion rights in 2006, as did El Salvador in 1998.
If Roe is overturned, abortion access in the US will vary. At least 26 states are likely to ban abortion, according to Guttmacher. Some may offer exceptions for incest or rape, while others may not.
Advocates for abortion rights say overturning Roe v. Wade is both a bad sign for women’s rights and a worrying reflection on the state of US democracy.
“What we see globally is that very often when the right wing authoritarian regimes take power, one of the first things they do is push back women’s rights,” says Shirley Graham, director of the Gender Equality Initiative in International Affairs at George Washington University. “It really raises the alarm bells in terms of the issue here in the US”
And 2019 report from Freedom House, a watchdog organization focused on democracy, argues the same, saying that the “dual phenomena of eroding democracy and resurgent nationalism” create new incentives for authoritarian leaders to “inject hostility towards women’s rights.”
Last week, the Supreme Court affirmed the authenticity of the leaked opinion and said it’s not final. Even so, the draft’s sentiment and consequences are already evident in US states. Republican-dominated statehouses in recent months have passed legislation at near-record rates restricting access to abortion ahead of the high court’s decision this summer.
Abortion rights are “always about gender equality – or lack thereof – within a particular nation,” Graham says. “When we roll back women’s rights, that state is saying that women no longer have the right to have full autonomy or sovereignty over their own bodies. If women don’t have rights over their own bodies and their own reproductive decisions, then how will they have rights in other areas of decision making in the US? ”