US abortion politics impact women worldwide
US politics—from the overturning of Roe v. Wade to the Global Gag Rule—can limit access to reproductive healthcare around the world, endangering women’s health and lives.
How does US politics influence choice aboard?
They have a saying in other countries: “When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.” When the US government is supportive of reproductive rights, it has the power to expand access globally. But when the US government limits access, it has both direct and indirect impacts on abortion worldwide.
Once a world-leader in women’s reproductive rights, the US is one of only a few countries that have taken steps to limit abortion access in recent years, and the effects are being felt far from US shores. These effects come both from direct policies such as the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment that limit foreign aid to organizations that provide abortion services and indirect actions, such as the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade which has emboldened anti-choice activists and lawmakers in other countries.
Roe v. Wade and abortion bans
The Supreme Court guaranteed the right to abortion in the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Despite the protection afforded by that decision, many states passed restrictive abortion laws in their attempts to challenge that protection.
Then, in June 2022, the newly conservative Supreme Court majority overturned the right to abortion in the United States altogether. In the wake of the decision, dozens of states moved to ban or severely limit abortion, forcing women to travel long distances for care or carry pregnancies they do not want.
Abortion rights activists around the world immediate felt the ripple effect of the decision. Our country programs report that local politicians and advocates began arguing that their countries should follow the United States’ example and restrict abortion access.
MSI’s advocacy teams are protecting the right to choose in the face of an emboldened opposition. But they face a well-funded and organized anti-choice movement. Open Democracy estimates that US right-wing organizations spend an average of $280 million every year attacking abortions and LGBTQIA rights globally.
The Global Gag Rule
The United States is the world’s largest funder of global health, meaning its policy decisions affect healthcare for millions of people around the world. One harmful policy that hurts women and girls is the Mexico City policy.
The Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule, has been enacted by every Republican president since Ronald Reagan and repealed by every Democrat. Re-enacting the Global Gag Rule was one of President Trump’s first acts in office in 2017. It was a decision that undid years of progress on global reproductive rights and caused untold pain to millions of women, limiting their opportunities for the future.
The Global Gag Rule prohibits US government funding to organizations that provide or even inform women about abortion care—even if no US money is used to provide that care. It forces organizations to choose between relinquishing US government funding or no longer providing or referring women for abortion care.
MSI refused to sign the Global Gag Rule in 2017. In some countries, such as Uganda, Madagascar and Nepal this led to service closures, a recorded rise in unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions and a broader chilling effect, impacting partnerships and advocacy for women’s healthcare. Even after the Global Gag Rule was repealed by President Biden, funding has not been fully restored.
Congress has considered permanently removing the Global Gag Rule. However, the legislation has never passed.
The Helms Amendment
Passed in 1973, the Helms amendment bans the use of US foreign aid funding for abortion care directly. The Helms Amendment states that abortion may not be funded “as a method of family planning.” The amendment was introduced by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.
American global health funding programs such as USAID have interpreted the amendment broadly. It bans funds for abortion in cases of incest, rape or when a woman’s life is at risk. It’s also been used to prevent the purchase of supplies used for lifesaving care after unsafe abortions.
As a result of this policy, poor women around the world are prevented from making the best choices for themselves and their families.
How do US politics impact MSI’s work today?
MSI has seen first-hand that when US political leaders push anti-choice policy, it has effects worldwide. We saw this during the Trump administration, when anti-abortion activism rose to a new high. US-linked groups lobbied for restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights across Africa and Asia. Online attacks shut down our Facebook and WhatsApp pages, making it difficult for women to communicate with us and get the healthcare they need.
This increased anti-choice activity has real-life consequences. Our providers face regular threats to their personal safety. We’re seeing US-style opposition tactics in many countries, such as “crisis pregnancy” centers set up to prevent people from getting unbiased medically based advice.
Esi Asare Prah, MSI’s Advocacy Manager for Ghana commented:
“It is frustrating for people like us working in reproductive choice in contexts like Ghana, because what happens in the US affects us. It gives power to the opposition and the tools to advance their efforts. It means those who have been on the fence in the past could be easily swayed to become part of the opposition. Trump has gone and the Gag Rule has been repealed. We were hopeful we could finally breathe and there was going to be progress.”
What can we do?
It’s clear that US policy influences access to safe abortion care for women around the world. But there are steps we can take—as a country and as individuals—to protect choice globally.
Congress should permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule and the Helms Amendment. This would free organizations that accept US foreign aid money to provide and talk about abortion, no matter which party is in office.
To combat the global anti-choice movement, funded largely through US organizations, pro-choice activists must fight fire with fire. By funding organizations like MSI, which provide services in the face of virulent opposition, you ensure we can keep services going safely and consistently.
Too few people realize the impact US politics has on the rest of the world. But when you speak out about this issue, you can make a difference!