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WORLD | 03-05-2022 14:06

Overturning Roe sets path for more US abortion limits than parts of Middle East, Latin America

United States would stand in contrast to countries like Argentina and Ireland, where abortion access has increased in recent years.

When the US Supreme Court first legalised abortion in 1973, the country was among the global leaders on reproductive rights. Today, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will mean the United States is moving in contrast to the recent wave of liberalising abortion laws that has swept many countries around the world.

In the past 25 years, about 50 countries have increased legal access to abortion, including nations with significant Catholic populations and cultures. In Latin America, some of the region’s most-important economies have reduced restrictions in recent years: Argentina and Colombia legalised the procedure, while Mexico decriminalised it. Ireland repealed an amendment banning most abortions in 2018. Thailand began allowing first-trimester abortions in 2020. Many European nations, along with Canada and New Zealand, permit abortions up to about 23 or 24 weeks of pregnancy, the so-called fetal viability standard.

The overturning of the landmark case would mean that the United States would open the door for states to be as restrictive as they deem. While some blue states could serve as abortion havens, red states that have already made abortion access much more limited could bring down more curbs. In the absence of Roe, about two dozen US states have laws on the books that would outlaw the procedure in all or most cases, with others indicating they may move in a similar direction. That could leave some states even more restrictive than several countries in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Tunisia.

If Roe falls, “it would represent the most damaging setback to the rights of women in the history of our country,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement on Monday. 

Already, more than 40 million women between ages 13 and 44 live in states with restrictive abortion rights, costing those economies US$105 billion annually by cutting labour force participation and earnings, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“Although we think of America as one of the most liberal places, where people have the most rights, we’re seeing it become one of the most restrictive countries when it comes to abortion access,” Christian Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women, said in December. 

About two dozen countries, including Egypt, Iraq, and the Philippines, ban abortion under any and all circumstances, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. In some cases, women and doctors can face prison sentences, steep fines — or, in Iran — death. 

But “we’re not seeing right now in the Middle East and North Africa a desire to make laws more punitive and more restrictive for women who need abortions and providers,” Leila Hessini, vice-president for the Global Fund for Women, told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, adding “there is not the same level of fervor, violence and attacks on women and providers as in the US.”

“Very few” countries have regressed on abortion rights, according to a brief filed to the Supreme Court by a group of international legal scholars. A rollback of abortion laws would put the US on par with Poland and Nicaragua, they said. China is also moving in that direction: Last year the government released guidelines saying it would seek to limit “non-medical abortions” in a bid to reverse the disastrous effects of its one-child policy.

In the United States, hundreds of protesters gathered in Washington late Monday after the report that the Supreme Court was on the verge of overturning the decision that enshrined abortion rights. And meanwhile, blue-state governors and politicians hailed their commitment to reproductive rights. US President Joe Biden urged the election of more lawmakers who support abortion rights.

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by Kelsey Butler & Shannon Sims, Bloomberg

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