Anti-abortion activists celebrated the end of the U.S. right to abortion, hoping it will trigger a new debate on a topic that in some places had largely been settled: in favor a woman’s right to choose. But it could also boomerang.
The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion put the United States at the forefront of abortion rights in the world.
Other countries would follow suit in the succeeding years, with France legalizing abortion in 1975, Italy in 1978, and Ireland finally joining most of the rest of Europe with a landslide 2018 referendum victory for women’s right to choose. Elsewhere, parts of Asia and Africa have made incremental steps toward legalizing abortion, while a growing number of Latin American countries have joined what has now been a decades-long worldwide shift toward more access to abortion rights.
But now, 49 years later, with last Friday’s landmark overturning of Roe v. Wade, will the U.S. once again prove to be ahead of the curve? Will American cultural and political influence carry across borders on the abortion issue, reversing the momentum of recent years?
This is the hope for national and local anti-abortion movements around the world, which have not only celebrated the Supreme Court decision, but pointed to the American Pro-Life movement as a model to emulate.
International pro-choice groups, meanwhile, see the risk of spillover of the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, but also an opportunity to mobilize support into new stronger legislation to protect abortion rights.
Tides turning in Latin America
Despite the lasting influence of the Catholic Church in Latin America, abortion has been legalized in recent years in several major countries in the region, including Colombia, Mexico and Argentina, as women’s right to choose appeared to take on an irreversible momentum.
Yet Argentine Congresswoman Amalia Granata, one of the most active anti-abortion activists in the country, pointed to last week’s U.S. ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade as a sign of the times.
"In the world there is justice again. We are going to achieve it in Argentina too," Granata wrote on her Twitter account.
In El Salvador, which still has strict bans on terminating pregnancy, anti-abortion activist Sara Larín tweeted, “The overturning of Roe v. Wade is as historic as the Berlin Wall fall, it is the beginning of the end of abortion, it is as important as the abolition of slavery in the U.S.” She added: “With this ruling it will be possible to abolish abortion in the U.S. and throughout the world.”
The anti-abortion Italian group "Pro-Vita" demonstrates against abortion and end-of-life laws in Rome.
Europe’s anti-abortion movement wants to break taboo
In Europe, the pro-choice stance is widely popular, with 72% support according to a recent Ipsos poll. The reaction from the anti-abortion movement has been more nuanced. The Vatican’s editorial director Andrea Tornielli wrote that the Supreme Court decision “can be the occasion to reflect on life,” and cited various issues including gun control, poverty and the condition of women in society.
Italy, which like Latin America, has seen its politics and culture largely influenced by the Catholic Church, nonetheless registers 77% support for abortion rights. Those outnumbered, like Senator Simone Pillon, a fervent anti-abortion activist, sees a chance to turn the tide: “After 50 years, the American Supreme Court overturned the famous Roe v. Wade ruling, which was founded on a false case,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Now let’s also ride this breeze of the right to life of every baby, that must be able to see the beautiful blue sky.”
But other anti-abortion leaders have reacted with caution. Popular conservative leader Giorgia Meloni was not (openly) celebrating the U.S. decision, aware that she could lose support on the issue. According to the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, when she was asked about the ruling, Meloni pointed out that Italy has a longstanding national parliamentary law that regulates abortions, while the Supreme Court ruling last week must play out on the state level. “Italy and the U.S. shouldn’t be compared,” she said. “And those that do so are probably in bad faith and have ideological objectives.”
French daily Libération: "Abortion Black Friday"
Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo
Possibility of a backlash
In France, with 81% of the population pro-choice, anti-abortion groups are largely considered on the political fringe, and some have remained cautious in response to Friday’s announcement. Many had rejoiced in early May when Politico first leaked the Supreme Court’s opinion draft regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade: Conservative journalist Charlotte D’Ornellas then praised the possibility of debating women’s rights to have an abortion in the U.S.
Invited on the right-wing news channel CNews the day after the Supreme Court ruling, Ludovine de La Rochère, president of the anti-same-sex-marriage organization “La Manif Pour Tous,” expressed a similar opinion. “In France, political correctness requires being absolutely in favor of abortion. (...) It is taboo,” she said. “In the U.S., this debate has never ceased to exist.”
Still, for anti-abortion advocates, the end of Roe v. Wade could spark a backlash: The party of President Emmanuel Macron and leftist parties have proposed adding abortion rights to the French Constitution. In a column for far-right weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles, right-wing politician Jean-Frédéric Poisson denounced an emotional manipulation of public opinion.
U.S. pro-choice campaigners will be looking closely at Ireland to see what lessons can be learned.
Debates around abortion are still fresh in the minds of many Irish people. The country finally broke with its strong Catholic past to legalize abortion by popular vote in 2018, overturning a constitutional amendment from 1983 that had guaranteed the right to life.
Irish anti-abortion groups, which lost the vote by an overwhelming margin (66% to 33%), welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. The Irish Pro Life Campaign described the ruling as a “momentous development for the right to life” and predicted it would force people to question “the new abortion regime that exists in this country.”
Pro-choice campaigner Dr Ailbhe Smyth predicted the ruling would not have a huge effect on Ireland. “I don’t have a direct concern for a U.S. impact on Ireland, but I do have a concern for those countries where abortion is not yet legal, where it is completely prohibited or is very highly restricted, and this has repercussions for the safety and the security of women.”
U.S. pro-choice campaigners, meanwhile will be looking closely at Ireland to see what lessons can be learned from the country’s campaign to legalize abortion.
Anti-abortion movements in Spain regularly organize demonstrations, and on Sunday, thousands demonstrated in Madrid against abortion. The organizers told El País that they are protesting against the existence of laws that go “against the truth and human nature.”
U.S. funding factor in Africa
Abortion remains difficult to access in most parts of Africa: Only Zambia, Cape Verde, South Africa and Tunisia have made it legal. Many countries on the continent have introduced exceptions in the case of rape, incest or threat to the woman’s life.
The news website Allafrica.com warns that the overturning of Roe v. Wade might have a huge impact on some countries’ legislations. Indeed, the U.S. is a major funder of African health programs and NGOs advocating for the decriminalization of abortion and providing support for women seeking to end their pregnancies. Some countries like Kenya have aligned their position on the U.S.’ stance.
In Asia, legislation greatly varies from country to country. According to Professor Walter Woon from the National University of Singapore, it is unlikely that the June 24 ruling will influence Southeast Asian nations. The majority of Asian women have access to abortion except for those living in conservative religious countries like the Philippines or in the Middle East.
In Australia, abortion rights depend on the legislature of each state, but it is legal up to at least 16 weeks across the whole country. Independent Australian news website Crikey reports that the Australian Christian Lobby called the decision a “tremendous victory in the United States” and said, “This is only the beginning.”