The end of constitutional protection for abortions in the United States on Friday polarised activists around the world, emboldening abortion opponents even as advocates of abortion rights worried it could threaten recent moves toward legalization in their countries.
The US Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision ”shows that these types of rights are always at risk of being steamrolled,” said Ruth Zurbriggen, an Argentinian activist and member of the Companion Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, a group favouring abortion rights.
But in El Salvador, anti-abortion campaigner Sara Larin expressed hope it will bolster campaigns against the procedure across the globe.
“I trust that with this ruling it will be possible to abolish abortion in the United States and throughout the world,” said Larín, president of Fundación Vida SV.
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In Kenya, Phonsina Archane watched news of Friday’s ruling and said she froze for a while in a state of panic.
“This is being done in America, which should be an example when it comes to the women’s rights movement,” said Archane, an activist for abortion rights.
“If this is happening in America, what about me here in Africa? It’s a very, very sad day.” She worried the ruling will embolden abortion opponents across Africa who have charged into reproductive health clinics or threatened attacks. “There is no safe place on the continent,” she said.
Abortion in sub-Saharan Africa is already more unsafe than in any other region of the world, and the overwhelming majority of women of child-bearing age live in countries where abortion laws are highly or moderately restricted, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based research organization that supports abortion rights.
Archane said civil society groups in Africa will now come together to work out strategies on how to keep themselves and women safe.
Just months ago, many saw hope when the World Health Organisation released guidelines on quality abortion care, she said: “We had a step ahead, and now we have to go five steps back again.” Meanwhile, the decision lit up social media across Argentina, where a law that legalised elective abortion to the 14th week of gestation took effect in January 2021 after years of debate.
Anti-abortion activists cheered Friday’s ruling, with legislator Amalia Granata tweeting: “There is justice again in the world. We are going to achieve this in Argentina too!!” Meanwhile, in more conservative countries like El Salvador, where abortions are illegal no matter the circumstance and where some 180 women with obstetric emergencies have been criminally prosecuted in the last two decades, Larin warned that the ruling could inspire yet more efforts to loosen abortion restrictions outside the US.
“Campaigns promoting abortion may intensify in our countries because funding and abortion clinics in the United States are going to close as they have been doing in recent years,” she said.
The UN agency dealing with sexual and reproductive health says that whether or not abortion is legal “it happens all too often” and global data shows that restricting access makes abortion more deadly.
The United Nations Population Fund issued a statement following the Supreme Court’s decision noting that its 2022 report revealed that nearly half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended, and over 60 per cent of those pregnancies may end in abortion.
“A staggering 45 per cent of all abortions around the world are unsafe, making this a leading cause of maternal death,” UNFPA said.
The agency said almost all unsafe abortions currently occur in developing countries, and it fears that “more unsafe abortions will occur around the world if access to abortion becomes more restricted”.
In the only part of Latin America directly affected by the ruling, Puerto Rico, the island’s Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that would prohibit abortions starting at 22 weeks, or when a doctor determines that a fetus is viable, with the sole exception being if a woman’s life is in danger.
The bill is now before the island’s House of Representatives.
Dr. Migna Rivera García, president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Psychologists, said the US Supreme Court’s ruling has prompted abortion rights activists to reformulate their strategy.
“It causes a lot of uncertainty given the environment right now in Puerto Rico,” she said. “This bill harms poor women and black women the most. … They don’t have access to services like other social groups.”