How U.S. Policies Shape Abortion Rights Around The World

The Establishment
Sep 19, 2016 · 8 min read

By Naomi Elster

It’s no secret that the United States has a massive global influence on politics — but too often, we forget how this influence extends to women’s rights. Around the world, countries make decisions on abortion and reproductive health that can be traced, at least in part, to precedents set in the U.S.

“The U.S. can be quite isolationist; it doesn’t often look outside of its borders. But a lot of other countries do look to the U.S. and will cite U.S. Supreme Court proceedings in their own court proceedings,” explains Grace Wilentz, a human rights activist and policy expert based in Dublin, Ireland, who has over 10 years of experience working in the sexual and reproductive rights arena and consulting for multiple international NGOs and UN agencies on these issues.

With the election approaching, it’s a particularly valuable time to look at the ways that U.S. policies shape those around the world — and how this affects even more than the crucial issue of abortion access.

Roe v. Wade

Not surprisingly, one of the most influential U.S. decisions on other countries has been Roe v. Wade. Decided in 1973, the ruling was of its time, heavily influenced by abortion liberalization happening globally, particularly in Western Europe. And it, in turn, has had significant global significance.

By grounding the right to choose in a solid constitutional argument about privacy and individual liberty, the United States created a framework that could be applied by other countries. And applied it has been; since Roe was decided, more than 40 countries have adopted laws to permit abortion under certain circumstances.

Yet interestingly, and distressingly, the influence of Roe hasn’t been entirely positive. As often happens with such landmark decisions, Roe also set off a global backlash. Fears that the same reasoning would be applied around the world mobilized a powerful Catholic lobby to bring an amendment to the Irish Constitution in 1983 that gives equal value to a fetus and the life of the woman carrying it. In 1986, the Filipino government introduced a constitutional requirement that the state “protect the life of the unborn from conception.”

At a recent international human rights conference, Wilentz discussed the dire situation surrounding abortion rights in Ireland with an activist from the Caribbean — and they realized that, despite the countries being otherwise very different, both had highly restrictive abortion laws.

“The constitutional amendments are almost identical across different contexts,” Wilentz explains. “[Roe v. Wade] really set off a wave, globally, in terms of where the Catholic Church had influence, to buttress against something similar. It’s unfortunate a step forward for women in the United States could have such a detrimental impact for women in other parts of the world.”

The Helms Amendment And Global Gag Rule

The same year that Roe granted freedoms to American women, Senator Jesse Helms brought in a ruling that restricted U.S. foreign aid going toward abortion. Since it was introduced, the Helms amendment has been lifted by every Democratic president and reinstated by every Republican (Senator Barbara Boxer’s 2015 bill to permanently block the rule was unsuccessful). Today, it is technically still in effect, though it has been dormant since January 2009 — when President Barack Obama took office and rescinded it.

This amendment, though, is mild compared to the Mexico City Policy, which was passed 11 years after Helms and is more commonly referred to as the “global gag rule” by politicians and the media. It bans any organization from receiving U.S. funds if it provides abortions, counseling, referrals or information, or advocates for abortion access within its own country — even if these activities aren’t paid for with U.S. money.

As intended, these rulings have had grim consequences for women around the world, often in ways that go far beyond access to abortion. NGOs can’t purchase essential medical equipment for treating miscarriages and bleeding after childbirth — the leading cause of maternal mortality — because the same tools can also be used in abortions. Medical personnel are limited in the meetings and trainings they can attend and report not going to important events if there is even a possibility that abortion will be discussed.

“Regardless of where you live or come from, abortion and those of us associated with abortion by having, providing, advocating for, or just talking about abortions are systematically, persistently devalued and criminalized,” comments Katie Gillum, of inroads, the International Network for the Reduction of Abortion Discrimination and Stigma.

In Ghana, for example, a woman has a right to safe abortion, which has been broadly accessible since 2006. But according to a report by Ipas, an NGO dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion, “censorship due to U.S. abortion policy in Ghana” is undermining access, and unsafe abortion is still a leading cause of death in that country.

In Bolivia, the government stopped providing emergency contraception due to the global gag rule, for fear of losing other funding. Hospitals in rural Kenya were forced to close for offering family planning services. In Zimbabwe, a health service director who privately supports abortion law reform had to state the opposite view in an interview to protect his organization. When the global gag rule increased unplanned pregnancies in Nepal, Kenya, and Zambia, it hurt the battle against AIDS in these countries.


Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, laws have become a common way for anti-choicers in America to restrict access to reproductive care. The goal is simple: Impose such burdensome regulations on abortion providers that they are driven out of practice, such that women and pregnant people (often especially in lower-income areas) have fewer options for reproductive care.

Now other countries, too, are adopting similar methods to restrict access.

In Mexico, for example, medical licenses are granted for consulting clinics or for surgeries; abortion clinics fall within a grey area in between. Oriana Lopez Uribe, deputy director of Feminist Organization Balance and coordinator of the MARIA Fund in Mexico, reports that COFEPRIS, the Mexican government body which regulates health services, has been exploiting this technicality to shut down abortion clinics, mirroring many of the TRAP laws that have been plaguing the United States.

“This is how they are operating in the States,” she contends, “They are trying to put barriers on the access in terms of technicalities and going there with the, ‘It’s safer for women’ [argument].”

Donations To Abortion Causes

The United States’ role in the policies of other countries has also been more direct. In Ireland, for example, there has been a long-standing belief that American money has kept the anti-abortion lobby strong, a suspicion that was confirmed in 2013 by Joseph Scheidler of the U.S. Pro-Life Action League. Scheidler stated that Youth Defence, one of Ireland’s better known anti-abortion groups, was one of the main recipients of funds from American organizations. In 2013, 70% of Youth Defence’s Twitter followers were based in the U.S., and the group solicited donations in American dollars instead of Euros. The Twitter followings of several high-profile Irish anti-abortion groups and individuals in 2012 were “dominated by either Americans, men, or American men,” according to blogger Geoff Shorts. It’s believed that American anti-abortion activists may believe Ireland is one of their last European allies.

But American funds aren’t all conservative, and the impact of American NGOs can be positive, too. The Open Society Foundation has donated considerable sums to Irish pro-choice organizations. A leaked strategy document from OSF stated that, “With one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, a win [in Ireland] could impact other strongly Catholic countries in Europe, and provide much needed proof that change is possible.”

It’s easy to assume that U.S. policies only affect those within the country’s borders. But in reality, the decisions it makes on abortion have far-reaching affects. And this matters for the simple reason that restricting access to abortion is not only unproductive, but harmful.

Indeed, a massive, global study by the World Health Organization in 2007 found that the number of abortions carried out were not substantially different between countries where it is legal and where it is not. Moreover, while criminalizing abortion doesn’t stop it from happening, it is very effective at harming women. Unsafe abortion accounts for 14.5% of the deaths of pregnant women globally. Almost all of these deaths are in countries with restrictive laws. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics last year reviewed a body of evidence showing that legalizing abortion protects women’s health without increasing abortion demand and subsequently called for increased access to abortion worldwide.

Considering all this, the stakes for women are especially high in this year’s presidential election. Lopez of the MARIA Fund thinks Hillary Clinton would be “more supportive of our issues” and Donald Trump would be “awful.”

Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute — a not-for-profit organization best known for its research on unintended pregnancies, contraceptive use, and abortion — is also concerned about the current political climate. The Guttmacher Institute is nonpartisan, but their audience on the Republican side is small and shrinking, which worries Boonstra. “You need people in both parties able to talk to their own party leaders about the value of health services, and health services that affect women and women’s autonomy and women’s ability to hold jobs in the marketplace, and all of that.”

With the high-profile, and discredited, smear campaign against Planned Parenthood last year, the recent Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt ruling from the Supreme Court, the closure of British abortion clinics due to anti-choice protests, and the way that pro-choice campaigns in Ireland and Latin America are getting louder, especially in light of the Zika virus in South America, abortion rights are an issue all over the world right now.

The timing of this election means that the next person to move into the White House will almost certainly change the current global situation. The interlinked questions of who that will be and how that change will happen remain to be seen.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

The Establishment

Written by

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded & run by women; new content daily.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

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