US abortion ruling puts women on alert worldwide

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Protesters gather in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris for a rally in support of abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, July 2, 2022.
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The recent U.S. Supreme Court judgment overturning Roe v. Wade and denying American women the constitutional right to an abortion has sent shock waves around the world – not least because it ran counter to the global norm. In the past three decades only three other countries have tightened abortion access, while over 60 relaxed their rules.

In many nations, the ruling has sparked renewed activism to protect local abortion rights; a French legislator has proposed enshrining the right to an abortion in the French Constitution. But elsewhere, in countries where abortion is seen simply as a medical service rather than as a cudgel in the culture wars, politicians seem reluctant to tinker with a quietly functioning status quo.

On the U.S.-Mexico border, meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruling has turned the world upside down. Once, U.S. women helped their Mexican sisters get abortions in the United States. Today, now that Mexico’s Supreme Court has decriminalized abortion, the situation is reversed, and American women are beginning to look south of the border for abortion access.

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on abortion has surfaced different values and cultural norms around the world. It also has implications for how societies think about gender equality and reproductive freedoms.

It was Simone Veil, the late French politician and champion of women’s rights, who pushed through the decriminalization of abortion in France in 1975.

“No woman resorts to an abortion with a light heart. One only has to listen to them: It is always a tragedy,” she told France’s parliament in 1974, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court granted federal access to abortion for American women in Roe v. Wade. And while Ms. Veil suffered fierce insults and threats at the time, a woman’s right to abortion has largely been a settled affair in France for the past half-century.

That’s not to say it has not come under threat, from conservative Catholics and the far-right. But while abortion has cleaved the United States in one of the nation’s longest standing culture wars, in France it has been considered a matter of public health.

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on abortion has surfaced different values and cultural norms around the world. It also has implications for how societies think about gender equality and reproductive freedoms.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last month rolled back abortion access for American women, however, protests have erupted in Paris and around the country that are indistinguishable from their counterparts in Minneapolis; Birmingham, Alabama; and Boston.

“The right to abortion is just as fragile in France as in the United States,” says Amandine Cormier, a math teacher who attended a protest over the weekend in the French capital. “We can see what happens in the United States and Poland when conservative parties rise to power. The first thing that goes is women’s rights, and abortion is a powerful symbol of that.” 

Philippe Wopjazer/AP/File
Simone Veil (left), dressed in the French Academician's uniform, poses in the library of the Institut de France before a ceremony in Paris in March 2010. Ms. Veil, a Nazi death camp survivor and prominent French politician, spearheaded abortion rights.

To ward off such an outcome in France, it has been proposed that the right to abortion be enshrined in the constitution, a move backed by 81% of respondents in a recent poll.

It’s a sign of how the Dobbs decision has reverberated around the globe, and how countries and reproductive rights advocates have mobilized to secure women’s rights at home. It has raised complicated questions about how best to do that, and whether measures to legislate or codify abortion might backfire – and in some cases even work against female equality.

The decision has also put many foreign activists, who once looked to the United States as a beacon when it came to reproductive equality, in the unexpected position of aiding the American women who once aided them.

“For these women in the U.S. who were born with a right, and grew up knowing this was their right, to wake up one day and say ‘you can’t anymore’ is a gut-punch to morale,” says Mariela Castro Flores, an abortion activist in Mexico, where the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion last year. For women everywhere, she says, “it’s brutal.”

A constitutional guarantee?

The Dobbs decision has emboldened anti-abortion groups internationally but goes against global trends: Over the past three decades, only three other countries had tightened abortion access before the Dobbs decision – Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Poland – according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, while more than 60 had relaxed the rules. 

The American decision came in for harsh condemnation abroad; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it “horrific,” while French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “Abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected.”

Just how to protect women’s rights, though, has proved a much more difficult question to answer.

In the U.S., President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday to defend American women from what he called the “terrible, extreme, and, I think, so totally wrongheaded” ruling by the Supreme Court. The order directs Health and Human Services to identify ways to “protect and expand access to abortion care” and preserve patient privacy, among other measures. But he also urged Americans to vote as the “fastest way” to get a national law that would codify Roe. 

The French bid to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right aims to provide “a guarantee,” says Albane Gaillot, a former parliamentarian whose 2020 bill extended the legal limit for abortion from 12 to 14 weeks. “In France, we don’t have strong opposition to the ‘Veil Law,’” she adds. But if political groups “want to undo the law, they’ll do it incrementally. And that would be very simple. All they would need is a majority in parliament.” 

In Canada, abortion was decriminalized in 1988, but no legislation protects it. Instead, it is treated as a medical procedure. In the wake of Dobbs, many are now asking whether Canada should put more safeguards in place, says James Kelly, a political science professor at Concordia University in Quebec.

Chris Helgren/Reuters
People hold signs as they stand in front of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto during a protest after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case, overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision, June 29, 2022.

But tinkering with the status quo could backfire for women, politicizing an issue that is not nearly the wedge it is south of the border. “In Canada we’ve had a consensus for nearly a generation that abortion is a medical service that should be provided at the discretion of the provinces,” Dr. Kelly says. “And none of the major political parties has wanted to revisit that consensus.”

In France, the moves to enshrine a constitutional protection could also risk polarizing the issue, says Anne-Marie Le Pourhiet, a public law professor at the University of Rennes 1. “Our traditions are not the same as in the U.S. If there is an ethical question to resolve, it’s the legislature that takes up the matter,” she says.  

“If you put abortion rights in the constitution, it gives the Constitutional Court a power it has never had before, and creates a government run by judges, which does not exist here,” Professor Le Pourhiet argues.

“There’s no point in going down the road of provocation,” she adds. “Simone Veil’s work was extremely balanced and resulted in consensus. ... Those who work in an extreme way create civil war.”

Some activists, though, not only support the constitutional change in France but also want even more encompassing protection. The “Abortion in Europe, Women Decide” collective, for example, is calling for abortion rights to be incorporated into the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. That is partly a reaction to new restrictions on abortion rights in EU-member Poland, showing how tenuous women’s rights can be.

Jean-Francois Badias/AP
European lawmakers gather to vote at the European Parliament, July 6, 2022, in Strasbourg, France. The parliament overwhelmingly condemned the end of constitutional protections for abortions in the United States and called for such safeguards to be enshrined in the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

At the Paris protest, says Danielle Gaudry, a member of the collective, young people filled the streets. “The younger they are, the angrier they are. They never thought that a law could be called into question in a country like the United States – a country that the world looks to. It was really a wake-up call,” she says.  

Cross-border payback

Perhaps no activists are feeling the pressure of the Dobbs decision more than those on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion the same month that Texas went further than any other U.S. state to restrict it, enacting a law banning abortion after six weeks. The nearly simultaneous decisions began to reverse a decadeslong trend of Mexican women crossing the border into the United States to have abortions.

Feminist groups and abortion-rights activists in Mexico, who for years have been promoting medicated abortions and education about clandestine but safe termination of pregnancies, are now supporting their counterparts in the United States, providing assistance in Mexico for anyone who may need to cross the border to have an abortion, whether through medication or in a clinic.  

In recent weeks, activist groups have started coordinating with U.S. networks to bring medications across the border too, according to Ms. Castro Flores. She declined to give details, but news reports cite smuggling the medication in teddy bears and other covert measures.

Latin America is considered one of the most restrictive regions in the world for abortion access. But as the U.S. is restricting rights, the region has shown a clear trend toward expanding them, from Argentina to Colombia.

Fernando Llano/AP
An abortion-rights advocate places a sign with a message that reads in Spanish "Legal abortion now" on a gate in front of the U.S. Embassy during a protest in Mexico City, June 29, 2022.

That has not only removed stigmas attached to the termination of pregnancies, but also shifted some entrenched gender inequalities. Ana Luis Muñoz, a Mexican psychologist, founded a program specifically for fathers called Padres muy Padres (Very Cool Dads) to encourage men to get more involved in traditionally “female” realms of parenting like child care and housekeeping. She says younger generations are more accepting of abortion, in large part because of the question of equality.

“Youth who are seeing their fathers participate more in raising them are more understanding of the idea of partnership. There’s more space to discuss abortion – or even just more understanding of the responsibility of both partners to take precautions,” to approach family planning in a way that takes both a man’s and a woman’s hopes and plans into account in a relationship, she says.

Back in Paris at last weekend’s protest, Mathieu Logothetis, a teacher and union activist, agrees that men have a role to play. “I think it’s generally important for men to be part of this debate so that media and politicians don’t relegate abortion to a ‘woman’s issue,’” he says. “That unfortunately often means it is given less importance.” 

Abortion, yes; sex selection, no

If a driving motivation for Americans opposed to abortion, especially conservative Christians, is protection of the unborn child, Judaism considers access to abortion as fundamental – to protect the life of the mother. 

In Israel, abortion has been a right since 1977, a law undergirded by the religious precepts of the country’s two dominant faiths with respect to when a fetus is actually considered “alive” – 40 days in Judaism and 120 days in Islam.

“The fact that until 40 days it’s not considered a live fetus makes the conversation much easier,” says Prof. Gil Siegal, an expert on health law and bioethics at Ono Academic College outside Tel Aviv. “Israeli society understands … a woman’s freedom of choice.”

That means abortion care is more straightforward in Israel than in even the most liberal U.S. states, argues Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an Israeli American journalist and editor in Jerusalem. It is “a lot more matter-of-fact, more compassionate, and with less of a stigma attached to it, even by religious people and religious doctors here,” she says.

The health ministry just removed bureaucratic hurdles to abortion that were deemed overly invasive, including the need for women to appear physically before an expert review committee. The reform was part of a long-term plan, but coming on the heels of the Dobbs decision, it drew attention to Israel’s more liberal approach; the left-leaning health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, tweeted, “The United States has moved backwards, Israel is moving forward.”

India is watching the U.S. closely too, but it strikes a careful balance between ensuring access to abortion and preserving female equality. Abortion has been permitted by law since 1971, largely to lower the high rate of deaths in childbirth. An amendment in 2021 liberalized the law further.

But India also contends with sex selection, whereby women abort female fetuses in favor of males, even though the practice is illegal. The United Nations estimates 3% of all female fetuses are aborted each year.

To ensure women’s access to safe abortion while not allowing male preference to flourish, Vinoj Manning, CEO of the Indian nonprofit IPAS Development Foundation, says his organization advocates abortion early in the pregnancy, before a fetus’s sex can be determined by ultrasound. 

Still, abortion access is critical, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ending the right to abortion makes that fight more urgent, in India and beyond, he says.

“Anything around abortion, any gains we have made, are always fragile,” Mr. Manning warns. “What happened in the U.S. sets a bad precedent. It makes a bad thing seem fine.”

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