The U.S. Is One Of The Only Countries Moving Backward On Abortion Rights

Dozens of nations have expanded abortion rights over the last 30 years. The Supreme Court’s likely overturn of Roe v. Wade would make the U.S. just the fifth to further restrict them.

A leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion suggested Monday that a majority of justices may soon fully overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion access nationwide.

If the court indeed issues that opinion, as is expected in the coming weeks, it would cement the United States’ status as a global outlier on abortion rights: Since 1994, 59 countries have expanded abortion rights by either legalizing or decriminalizing it, The New York Times reported last year, citing numbers from the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy nonprofit.

Only three nations — Poland, Nicaragua and El Salvador — have meaningfully curtailed abortion rights over the same span, according to the center’s figures, while Honduras last year added its existing full ban on abortion to its constitution.

New limits on abortion rights, as The New York Times’ Max Fisher reported, have occurred almost entirely in countries experts consider “backsliding democracies” thanks to broader erosions of democratic rights and protections. That is currently the case for the United States.

“The overwhelming current international trajectory is toward the legalization of abortion,” Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins, the president and CEO of PAI, an international reproductive rights group, said in a statement Tuesday.

“The fact that the United States is backsliding on fundamental human rights at a time of such exciting global expansion is deeply concerning,” she said, adding that the overturn of Roe would “bolster the anti-abortion movement around the world” and “derail the progress toward universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

Fueled by powerful feminist movements, public health campaigns and robust legal challenges, the global reproductive rights push has exploded especially in some of the world’s most conservative corners.

Argentina legalized abortion in 2020.
Argentina legalized abortion in 2020.
Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images

In 2018, Irish voters approved a referendum to repeal a constitutional amendment that outlawed abortion. Two years later, Argentina’s congress voted to make it the largest Latin American nation to legalize the practice. Ecuador’s top court expanded reproductive rights in 2021, decriminalizing abortion in instances of rape. In Mexico, where abortion has been legal in some states for more than a decade, the Supreme Court last year ruled unconstitutional state laws that still criminalized the practice. And early this year, Colombia’s constitutional court legalized abortion up to 24 weeks in a ruling that activists celebrated even if it didn’t go as far as they’d hoped it might.

Each victory has fueled another push, particularly in Latin America, which like Ireland has long been dominated by the traditional conservatism of the Catholic Church. The region is still home to some of the world’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

Last year, Chile’s Congress considered legislation to expand abortion access. And although lawmakers ultimately rejected the bill, Chile’s ongoing constitutional convention voted this year to include and protect reproductive rights in a draft of a new constitution, which would make it the first country in the Americas to specifically enshrine abortion rights in its governing document.

In Brazil, meanwhile, leftist presidential candidate Lula da Silva, who previously served as president from 2003 to 2011, last month argued that abortion was a public health matter and a basic right that should be available to everybody.

The global reproductive rights movement has advanced in fits and starts, and suffered its share of setbacks. Efforts to decriminalize abortion in certain circumstances have recently failed in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, two countries that still ban the practice outright.

More could soon come: Once finalized, Chile’s new constitution will need majority approval from voters to take effect, and approval rates for the new constitution have fallen sharply in recent months. In Brazil, da Silva holds a sizable lead in polls ahead of this October’s presidential election. But his embrace of abortion rights caught even some of his supporters and allies off guard and sparked fears that it could give a boost to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, a staunch social conservative and abortion opponent.

But the global trend in favor of expanded reproductive rights is clear, even in nations that still largely limit the practice. Polls have shown steady increases in support for legal abortion in limited circumstances across Latin America, to the point that sizable majorities in the region’s largest nations now support it in instances of rape, incest or health of the mother. Opposition to broader abortion legalization remains strong, but has been consistently eroding in both countries that have expanded access and those that haven’t.

A majority of Americans favor legalized abortion and oppose the overturn of Roe, according to polls from Gallup and others. But even before the current Supreme Court case, the U.S. was bucking global trends thanks to fervent opposition to abortion rights among Republicans and the party’s dominant hold on state legislatures and the courts, a dynamic that has been aided by the United States’ structural favoritism of minority rule.

The GOP has utilized its inherent advantages in the Senate and state legislatures, as well as the rabid anti-abortion energy of its evangelical base, to drastically curb abortion rights in the states it controls and set the stage for the full or partial overturn of Roe in the nation’s highest court.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority signaled its intentions in the current case last September, when it declined to block a new Texas law that effectively outlawed abortion in the state. Oral arguments in the pending case, which revolves around a 2018 Mississippi law limiting abortion access to 15 weeks, further indicated that the demise of Roe was likely this summer.

Numerous states have passed aggressive laws in anticipation of the ruling, some of which do not allow for abortions even in instances of rape or incest. The pending case could supercharge the effort especially if the draft opinion from Justice Samuel Alito, which Politico obtained and published Monday night, becomes the majority decision: 22 states already have laws or constitutional amendments that would likely lead to immediate abortion bans if Roe is overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research institution.

Four more — Florida, Indiana, Montana and Nebraska — could move to join them shortly after the decision, which could also reinvigorate pushes for more restrictive laws even in purple states like Virginia, where Republicans recently reclaimed the governor’s mansion and majority control of the state’s lower legislative chamber.

Conservative activists have begun advocating for national legislation to ban abortion should Republicans win control of the House and the Senate in November’s midterm elections, The Washington Post reported Monday. And while President Joe Biden or any other Democrat wouldn’t sign such a ban into law, a future Republican trifecta seems likely to at least try to outlaw abortion nationwide.

Conservatives in Latin America and elsewhere will likely see the Supreme Court’s decision as a boon to their efforts to thwart reproductive rights movements: On Monday night, an adviser to Brazil’s Bolsonaro tweeted celebrations of the leaked opinion and apparent demise of Roe.

But it may further galvanize feminist and reproductive rights movements in Latin America and elsewhere, especially because the pending Supreme Court case and the broader rollback of abortion rights in the United States has already helped create a sense of urgency around the issue.

“It has been a red flag, and a reminder for the feminist movement in Latin America,” Mariana Ardila, an attorney for Women’s Link Worldwide and one of the lead attorneys on the Colombian Supreme Court case that succeeded in February, told HuffPost last year. “If it can happen in the United States, it can happen elsewhere. So we better move forward instead of being passive about it.”

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